It might surprise you, given that I am a professional and a black woman, but I don’t support many diversity or diversity training initiatives I have seen. So many electronic documents about diversity cross my desktop these days. But maybe diversity in the broad sense was never really the true problem. You see as humans we are all unique in terms of thousands of features. My husband works in a tech company whose employees are like a parody of the anti-diversity typical in technology companies. Everyone is a white guy under 50 with glasses and a beard. It actually gets worse than that, as they aren’t even different ethnicities of white people, and they all seem to be cursed by the slightly hipster fashion sense that makes them wear flannel. But since they all live at a different address can we claim they are diverse? This silly question highlights a very real problem I notice. People confuse geographic and skin color diversity, with the kinds of diversity that would highlight how their entire industries are failing to be diverse in a plethora of other ways.
I don’t want to point fingers so let’s talk hypotheticals; let’s say my husband’s company hired twenty workers from India. Great, no more white-people-only company. But let’s look at who they might hire- recent grads from US or EU programs where the vast majority of students would come from upper caste backgrounds. Now the company has actually become less inclusive of non-elite types. There will be no Dalits, let alone African-Americans, or any of the other groups we tend to see excluded from tech. Is this brown-people-washting a type of diversity anyone should even bother with? I would argue maybe not, because in a world of limited resources, throwing them sideways is sad.
Real world issues are often close to that black and white (pun intended). I once had a friend working in a hospital department in the Bronx where there was a concerted effort to get more diverse doctors. Before the effort more of the doctors were Indian grads, afterwards they added more foreign grads from different countries. The area the hospital was situated in was overwhelmingly poor, black and Latino, yet they never added a single doctor from that kind of background. Or administrator. Or quite frankly any position paying a decent wage from what I could tell. (Full disclosure the head of one department told me he wanted to hire me to train for a serious position but I left the country because of the racism I got as a patient in several local healthcare settings).The hospital itself seemed to have no problem hiring from the local populations, they made up the overwhelming majority of badly paid workers such as cleaners. Such inconvenient facts can be obscured by simplistic statistics. So maybe we need to think a bit differently about diversity if we actually want to progress to an inclusive society where all kinds of people get a chance at a life with human rights, dignity and progress.
Ideally diversity trainings might cause people to work towards just such a society. I’m afraid in reality not only do they not, but they don’t, in most cases provide any kind of quantitative analysis of what they do accomplish. From my informal survey of some people who have had them, they seem to breed an unspoken resentment among many people. Take a good friend of mine who is white and works in elite private education. She works somewhere that has a diversity and inclusion officer, and many ‘diversity’ initiatives. She is subjected to lectures and assignments to increase her sensitivity on an ongoing basis. She is secretly annoyed because she realizes the entire point of private schools is to dis-include the poor unless they are deemed especially deserving of a decent education, elite private schools exist to give high quality educations to rich children. The rich don’t want a meritocratic society, they want their cronies to keep power until it is passed to their children. They have the same human instinct we all have- protecting their own. So my friend often tells me how angry she is about another stupid diversity training because it is sucking away more of her time. I wonder about a much darker possibility: maybe it’s all a ruse. Maybe they take no metrics on how successful it was on purpose, because the true goal was to avoid diversity. The true goal was some sort of psychological catharsis of elites who may have caught on to the fact that they are actively working against diversity.
But the simpler explanation is that all these training reflect is the collective stupidity of those who plan and sponsor them. Towards that hope I offer some humble suggestions for how such institutions might move forward:
1. Study diversity in a quantitative way, including how you map in terms of excluded groups. That means amassing data on things like the zip code of where people somehow related to your institution come from. It takes less than 10 minutes for an employee to fill out a form that indicates gender, ethnicity, zip code, and so on, please keep the data. Remember to get data on the groups that you know are excluded. Every society has these groups. Everyone there knows who they are. That means if you are in the US, then for goodness sake do not make skin color the sole way you look at diversity, thus clustering African immigrants into the same category as local (lower socioeconomic status) blacks. History here is instructive. They used to give black diplomats special ribbons lest they be treated like local black people in the USA. Racists in the past did not blur this line, think critically about whether you should. Sometimes differences never recorded make the difference- the difference in the employment patterns between women with and without children is well known- but how many companies keep this data for themselves as opposed to some very general happy data which show they hired women?
2. Make extremely concrete goals in term of diversity and don’t be afraid to fail. Perhaps it could inspire you to examine why you failed and create a better world. In the case of my husband’s company, when they realized they would fail to get a diverse workforce, they had to ask why...and then ask themselves if they wanted to try and help make a better world.
3. Compare yourself to other institutions. Everyone knows there is an inherent pipeline problem in elite professions for certain groups. In some newer areas of tech there needs to be a certain critical mass of people inside them, yet to be reached, before all kinds of people see them as possible occupations. I remember the succinct observation of an African-American programmer I met. “ In certain neighborhoods, people know if you are really smart, then maybe you can be a doctor or lawyer, and in reality the only successful people you see like you are entertainers, sports stars, and drug dealers, no one ever tells you that you can be a database administrator, or programmer and make a killing” Given how far we are from a critical mass that naturally reproduces itself in certain areas, institutions can still ask how they compare to their peers. As to my husband’s company with zero black people, zero women, zero gays...well, you get the picture, there is probably a more diverse inclusive atmosphere at some neo-Nazi meetings. When the bar is low, and you can’t get over it, you have a problem.
4. Measure the outcomes of diversity trainings. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want your employees to be more sensitive to people of different background? Are they even sensitive to staff of different backgrounds inside your organization? That might be a great starting point. Make sure you measure more than qualitative feelings in the 5 minutes after the training.
5. Aim to become a less diverse organization in terms of empathy. When I think back to the people who have made me feel the least included, it was people who did it purposefully. People who wanted to intimidate, bully and harass me, and who saw an easier target because I was a black woman. Such people often aren’t even particularly racist or sexist, just splendidly cunning, and aware of the racism of the world we live in. I knew one such man from my days at an elite prep school for the academically gifted. At one point when I hinted I might not hard over some work of mine for free for a medical event he was involved in, he hinted he would call the police as I was so threatening when I told him he could have my work for free, but requested it be at least represented properly. At the time I was a 120 something pound young lady-nerd who worked in medical research, whereas he was a tall guy who played some violent contact sport back in high school if I recall correctly. But we both knew he had a point (which was that practically there was nothing I would be able to do if he claimed I was an angry violent black woman, and it could even land me in jail because after all, he was an elite medical student while I worked in a lab). He stole my work, and I never spoke up. He is a successful pulmonologist today. I’m utterly empathetic to the black birdwatcher, because I know most of us in the professional nerdy classes with a certain skin tone have been there.
The world’s problems in terms of inclusion will not be solved tomorrow, no matter how effective our diversity efforts are. In fact, by many measures dis-included groups are losing ground in the ability to live lives in equality with the rest of society. Ever increasing economic inequality has made the lives of many of those in such groups particularly hard, even in comparison to the recent past. From the coloreds of South Africa to the coloreds of the US, many of us have come to the strange conclusion that explicit legal apartheid was a blunt and stupid mechanism doomed to fail, but economic dis-inclusion is far more insidious. By some measures people of my ethnicity are worse off today than sixty years ago. And no happy diversity training can erase that reality. But perhaps some well planned, measured diversity efforts can make things a bit better.