working women

What to do about diversity numbers?

This has been the summer of diversity numbers in technology.  This Atlantic article helpfully aggregates the data publicly released by one tech company after another.  But as the author’s article notes, there is almost a disturbingly formulaic way this is done.  In her words, the companies: 

1. Write a blog post about the importance of transparency, acknowledging how your company has a long way to go and outlining a few diversity-related initiatives

2. Include a sleek graph showing how few women and minorities you employ

3. When asked to talk about the issue, decline interview requests and redirect people back to the original blog post

I certainly understand the cynical view that revealing numbers alone won’t change things.  However, its the first right step.  After all, for many industries and companies, it would be very, very uncomfortable to do the same.  Can you imagine [insert name of Bulge Bracket investment bank, Private Equity company or Commodities company] doing the same?  Or, can you imagine female-dominated industries and companies like [insert PR firm, Consumer Goods company or Fashion house] airing their skewed numbers of male managers and female underlings?  

What other steps could a company take?  Here are 2 suggestions:

  1. Evaluate the culture by gathering information about what’s behind the numbers.  This is hard – very hard.  Its an exercise that’s more art than science because it requires receiving honest feedback from employees who will not be comfortable sharing their real thoughts for fear of hurting their career/reputations.  I’m not even sure this can even be done without outside intermediation and complete anonymity.
  2. If it turns out there are problematic individuals or leadership, they have to change or be replaced.  I think this is even harder to do than just getting honest information.  Companies are run as hierarchies and its not easy to change the people at the top especially since they typically have other redeeming qualities!  There also might be too many of them that need to be changed if a culture is particularly bad.

The alternative is just to change the numbers over time, which isn’t a terrible goal in itself.  However, these types of campaigns can potentially backfire if they’re not well-crafted/implemented and end up looking like tokenism or underserved affirmative action.  (Or even just overnight cosmetics, in the case of Apple’s new “leadership” page on their website).  

In my conversations and surveys of professional women, most seemed to not rank gender ratio very highly on the list of factors they considered when deciding where to work.  This is why Fairygodboss‘ doesn’t actively try to capture numbers on a company’s gender break-down or “leadership” (even when available).  I am happy to — and even actively seek out partnerships — with other organizations that do collect data.  I’m also happy to change my tune if enough users want me to. For now though, while I may be committing a heresy in our data-worshipping world, I think some of the most important things in life (and at work) just can’t be captured by numbers and I would prefer to let user stories speak for themselves.

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