Why it’s not ok to sit back and hope the problem goes away
If you’re reading this you care enough to be curious — that’s a good start. Or you’re going to flame me — that’s a less good start but at least I have your attention. I’m writing this in the hope that people out there read it and realise that they have a moral obligation to educate themselves. I’m writing it despite the risk of getting it wrong or upsetting those who think there isn’t a problem. In the former case please tell me how to better express myself — help me fill in my blanks. In the latter case, the paradox of tolerance means I don’t have to lose sleep over your insecurity. Either way there was a lot of fear before I hit publish on this story.
I’ll start with why you should care about it. Diverse teams achieve better business outcomes. Diverse teams make better decisions. Inclusive environments retain and attract more people from broader backgrounds. It’s in your interest to care before you even get to the moral point that a fair society gives everyone the same opportunities. If you look at the privileged minority in charge of both the USA and the UK then it’s clear we don’t live in a meritocracy.
Privilege can mean lots of things. It could be gender. It could be race. It could be sexual orientation. It could be nationality. It could be your job title. It could be socioeconomic group. It could be where you’re based. What it does mean is that you’re part of a majority group that has more influence and carries less risk for wielding that influence.
Now, here’s the problem — the majority of people in senior positions are from privileged groups. They have no frame of reference to understand anything other than their experience through life. They don’t know what it’s like growing up afraid to make eye contact with the police. They haven’t experienced the difficulty of getting that interview for a place at college or the first job because their name sounds foreign. They haven’t had to deal with being told it’s their fault that they have fewer opportunities or that they’re somehow naturally inferior. If you’re from a privileged group more doors are open to you by default. That doesn’t mean you’re not good at your job, not talented, not driven to succeed. Just that you have less to overcome. It’s easy to look at the diversity programs run by companies as a form of positive discrimination. Playing the victim because people are trying to correct the structural biases in society is not a good look.
Let me give you two examples to highlight the difference. Here’s my experience of education and first job. I was lucky enough to go to a good school to do my A levels before university. A former student came in to publicise a scholarship scheme IBM ran to send people to study computer science. When I went to the interview every single person who interviewed me was white and male. I was lucky enough to get a place where they paid my way through it and then employed me at the end of it. I coasted the whole way through. Getting to the start line of my career was easy.
Compare that with one of my old team. She decided she wanted to go to university against the will of her parents who already had a husband picked out. When her parents finally relented they wanted her to study home economics. She disobeyed them again and studied computer science. When she graduated her parents breathed a sigh of relief. The rebellion was over and it was time to settle down. Shortly after she moved to London to get a job in a city where she knew no one. In 3 years she went from the quietest person in the room to the engineer everyone wanted feedback from. For her getting to the start line involved taking chance after chance where every part of the system, including her family, was working against her.
If you’re from a non-privileged group you have less support with education, less chance of getting a job interview (even with the same CV), less chance of being hired. When you do get a place at university — companies are less likely to hire from your university. You’re seen as a risk before you’re brought onboard and your voice seems to never be heard. People give you less credit for the work you do and less support for career progression. You succeed in spite of the system not because of it.
And then, if that wasn’t unfair enough — you get people like me who never had to jump through these hoops telling you that the system is fair and that if you’ve got a problem with it you should go and fix it yourself. If you take this from the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement to modern day we are asking the people who were brutally disadvantaged by slavery and the society it shaped to go and fix what was done to their forebears (and then them through generations of ingrained disadvantage). This is not a new problem — this paragraph from Frederik Douglass‘s speech to congress sums up the structural bias that has existed in America from the very beginning.
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
If you’re from a privileged group and you think there’s a problem and you do nothing — you are part of the problem. Your silence tells those around you that you’re ok with the status quo. And that makes people feel even less included, less able to find a voice, less able to succeed. I remember when my mother died of cancer how everyone she knew didn’t know how to talk to her so they all ignored her. This made her experience so many times worse. This is a problem because, a lot of the time, good people are afraid to say anything for fear of getting it wrong. If you only watch one talk ever on inclusion watch this one by Mekka Okereke from Google. It’s one of the best 25 minutes you will spend. We all have to start having the conversation — even if we get it wrong — even if we’re afraid to start.
Studies show that things only change when there is active support from the very top of companies. When senior management steps up and owns it. At another company I got all the directors and above from engineering around a table and asked them:
- How do you think our company is doing on diversity and inclusion?
- Are you comfortable standing in front of the company and talking about it?
Half the people thought it wasn’t a problem because they didn’t feel there was a problem. Half the people said they didn’t know where to start. NO ONE said they’d be comfortable talking about it. I repeated the questions to a group of line managers with the same results. Then I asked them what they were going to do about it? Most people responded that there wasn’t anything they could do. This is the problem we face here. Even when people know there is a problem, know that diverse teams are more effective, know that they have biases — people still do nothing. The CEO of that company took me aside to tell me to stop working on Diversity and Inclusion because it wasn’t a priority right now. I’m ashamed to say that this is normal in our industry.
Rather than giving you any set of actions I’m just going to say you take the first step. You need to start the conversation. You need to start educating yourself and make it a priority right now. Get involved with diversity and inclusion initiatives at your company. Mentor people from underrepresented backgrounds. Nobody deserves to feel alone in a crowded room. Everyone deserves the chance to fulfill their potential. If you read this and agree with the moral and intellectual case and you’re doing nothing — ask yourself. Is this consistent with what I believe is right? Am I avoiding it because I don’t know where to start? Am I afraid? If you answer yes to those questions there are people who would be overjoyed to help you get started on your journey. Go and say hi to them and start your journey by learning about theirs.
Now I’m at the end of my spiel — let me say something — I’m not the finished article here by any stretch. Every day I learn something new which shows me just how limited my worldview is. The recent Black Lives Matter protests spurred me to read about my own country’s past in the slave trade. I’m getting over the “it was terrible but a long time ago so not my problem” thought pattern that I adopted by default. You’re not going to flip a switch and get this subject — you have to invest the time. It’s worth it because that female engineer I talked about earlier — watching her blossom into a confident woman who felt secure enough to play practical jokes on her boss was one of the most rewarding journeys of my career. Looking back I wish I’d done more of it. If you have privilege ask yourself — how am I using it to make the system fairer?
If you read this piece and don’t think there’s a problem — ask yourself. How do you know there isn’t a problem? What are you doing to verify it isn’t a problem. Because telling millions of people it’s just in their heads without checking for yourself is gaslighting on a truly industrial scale.