Embracing Diversity

Alternate title: Why we're failing at diversity and what we can do to fix it.

Diversity is one of those things all businesses want. Like creativity or innovation, it sounds great, feels hip, and helps your business look good, right? But do we really value diversity, or just the word itself? When talking about diversity the first obstacle to tackle is understanding why it matters so much. Otherwise it may be misunderstood and relegated to another checklist item like ping pong tables , free meals , and bring your dog to work Fridays .


So why is it important? Because diversity directly translates to success. A recent study by First Round Capital found that companies with a female founder performed 63% better than all-male teams.

Diversity is an opporTunity

Think about that. That's a 63% higher ROI for investors. That's real return, real profits, real success. It benefits business owners, investors, employees, and customers alike. Diversity works. It breeds success and is NOT a checklist item. It's an opportunity, and with increasingly competitive industries on all fonts, it's a big one.

We should think about diversity similar to how to we think of innovation. There’s no magic moment when a company or team becomes innovative. Rather, ongoing innovation drives the success of the product, culture of the team, and evolution of the company. Tell me the last time you thought, “Whew! As of our last hire we are now innovative.” Ridiculous, of course. Diversity, like innovation, is something we actively work to improve. And remember, the reason why... diversity drives success.

So What is diversity

Before I go any further I should clarify, what is diversity? It's not just about skin color or gender, that's for sure. Which is part of the reason why throwing up a "diverse" team picture on your company website (worse yet, paying actors to model for it) or holding an obligatory women-in-tech panel at a conference doesn't all of a sudden mean you're diverse. The power is in creating an environment with diversity of perspective, experience, and thought. In slightly different words, as Entrepreneur put it recently, conflict is part of human nature.

Why can’t we all get along? Because we can’t. Conflict is part of human nature. There are times when it’s important that we don’t get along. There are times when we need to confront our differing viewpoints and learn to conflict in productive ways. The great irony is that the process of learning how not to get along is critical to building successful relationships and effective teams.
— http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/248684

Diversity doesn't necessarily mean we don't get along, but it does mean valuing perspectives and giving differing ideas ample chance to be explored. Conflict, so long as you steer clear of cheap shots and toss egos out the door, can be a powerful thing. Learning to confront our differing viewpoints and conflict in productive ways can drive the development of new ideas, strategies, product designs, and more.

I support diversity, I swear

Is diversity actually a problem today? Yes. This post isn't meant to be an attack on anyone. But at the same time, I'd guess that 99% of the people who hear the word would think, "chyeah, go diversity, for sure!"

And yet, things like above still happen. All. The. Time. A few weeks ago at a tech conference a talented female founder and CEO told me that the lead investor in her company asked to meet without her present at the next board meeting. She obliged because with no other interested investors, she didn't have any other options.

Let me give another example with a wider data set. Recently, a study was performed where employee reviews were collected from men and women in tech. 245 reviews were collected, from 180 people, 105 men and 75 women. The reviews were shared voluntarily with no special stipulations about gender or any other factor. The question to be answered was "Did review tone and content differ based on gender?" The results:

Critical feedback was not evenly distributed by gender. 59% of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback. 88% of the reviews received by women contained critical feedback. In other words, "Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down."

While both men and women received constructive criticism, women were also more likely to receive negative personality criticism... much, much, more likely in fact. "This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women." The manager's gender did not affect the nature of critical feedback in the review.

There’s a common perception that women in technology endure personality feedback that their male peers just don’t receive. Words like bossy, abrasive, strident, and aggressive are used to describe women’s behaviors when they lead; words like emotional and irrational describe their behaviors when they object. All of these words show up at least twice in the women’s review text I reviewed, some much more often. Abrasive alone is used 17 times to describe 13 different women. Among these words, only aggressive shows up in men’s reviews at all. It shows up three times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.
— http://fortune.com/2014/08/26/performance-review-gender-bias/

I would challenge ourselves to think honestly about our past experiences. Were we more quick to perceive a woman's opinion or action as "abrasive" than a man's? According to this study, the answer is likely yes. In addition to promoting equality, welcoming differing opinions can lead to healthy debate and challenging the status quo in ways that may not have occurred otherwise.

Without a culture of diversity -- as well as a framework that allows teams to openly challenge the status quo and debate ideas free from intolerance and dogmatism -- we run the risk of 1) failing to give good ideas a chance to be explored, 2) bad decisions being made for the wrong reasons, 3) team members feeling their views are suppressed, and 4) losing valuable team members entirely.

What can we do?

Well, that may have been a lot to process. Fortunately, we're coming to a set of solutions. Suggested by @br_ttany at #TechFestNW last month, there are two simple action items that will translate into immediate results in terms of walking the diversity talk.

  1. Identify inconsistencies
  2. Amplify voices

Identify inconsistencies

When we overhear racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced remarks or spot other inconsistencies in our goal to be open, inclusive, and diverse let's talk about it. This means looking at promotional materials and job perks, considering our lunchroom conversations, office environments, and business trips, and prioritizing what's important. Do you value diversity? Are you communicating it?

I recently attended #StartFEST in Provo, Utah. I was blown away by the support from local communities and the success of growing businesses. It's really something, what's going on in the Salt Lake area. One thing I found disappointing, however, was the lack of diversity in the tech community. In one presentation, a local VC firm celebrated their prized founders list (pictured in slide).

See any issues? 100% male. 90+% caucasian. Conveying to all in attendance that THIS is what success looks like. We need to fix this. Why is it an issue? Because the way we portray success translates into the way we hire, manage, and run our companies.

I would be so proud to be a part of a diverse tech community, where seeing women and people of color in these types of presentations is commonplace. I hope we'll get there soon.

Amplify voices

The second key action we can take is to amplify differing voices and opinions around us. That means taking the time to listen to people who are not like you. Yes, fixing diversity in tech is a big, challenging issue, but throwing our hands up is not an option. Take a look at your Twitter and Instagram feeds. Find people who are different from you and follow them.

Amplifying voices different than your own shows you respect and support people of varying backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. And frankly, we need more of that in the world. If it helps lead to successful businesses and growing economies, which it does, then I'm an ally.