Part III: Greed Over Humanity –

Why Most Conversations in Tech About Diversity Are Bullshit — and What to Do About It

This is part of a series that includes posts introducing this topic, the P-Word, and equality for all women or just white women?

Out of the the three reasons why most conversations in tech about diversity end up being bullshit, this is the most painful to write about — in part because I recently had a painful conversation that reminded me of this reality.

And now, by the very nature of me acknowledging that this is personally painful, as a human being you are now forced to make one of two choices:

  1. Put aside your discomfort with pain and find the courage to enter into mine. Empathy.
  2. Tighten the grip around your comfort and reject the humanity in both of us. Apathy.

I once heard someone say, “We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”

Choose wisely before you continue to read this post.

Source: Gaby Vasquez

First, A Confession

Confession. I don’t want to write about this anymore. Why? Because it’s incredibly tiring work to try and convince people who like the idea of caring about people to actually care about people.

If at this point you feel like the shame gremlins are starting to climb through the screen, please refer to the section titled “The Antidote to Shame” in my last post before continuing on. I need you to keep reading and hope that you’d choose courage over comfort in order to do so.

But here’s the reason why I continue:

I know that if we are actually going to move forward in this conversation something needs to change. And I’m convinced that the key to that change — which will rub against the way most of us were raised and will be resisted by cultural norms — is the willingness to be vulnerable enough to experience empathy and compassion before creating solutions.

“Compassion is knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others. It never is a relationship between the wounded and the healed. It is a relationship between equals.”

– Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You

With that in mind, I am well aware that what I’m about to write is going to be difficult for a lot of readers. The sad reality is that most attempts to/conversations about increasing diversity in tech have the appearance of trying close the gap created by institutionalized biases/racism/sexism/etc., they only widen the chasm.

In other words, some of you might be guilty of actively or passively prioritizing greed over humanity.

The Business Case for Diversity: Productivity + Profit

As I’ve said in my first post, if the only way we can get the tech community to care about diversity in the workplace is by appealing to profits and productivity, then at best we’re assholes and at worse we’ve lost our humanity.

I recently had an email conversation with the Principal of a design studio who told me how he believes that “working with people that bring a diversity of experiences, background, and perspectives leads to better work and insights.” He continued,

“Since we value diversity and believe it improves the work, we continue to look for ways to diversify our workplace when hiring and in forming partnerships.”

And while on the surface that sounds like a great response, especially in light of an apprenticeship program that they have since discontinued, I decided to gently push back and ask him the following questions:

1) What does it mean to value diversity beyond what it can do for a business’s profit?

2) What does it look like to pursue diversity despite the numerous articles that attest to its relationship to productivity and better work?

3) What does it look like to bring diversity into your workplace? And what would the motivations be behind it?

20 minutes passed and his response popped up in my inbox:

“To quickly respond to your questions, it did not occur to me to value diversity from a profit perspective. In my opinion diversity brings a deeper, fuller, better lived life. In a workplace it does that, as well.”

I’d like to pause and highlight a few takeaways from this snapshot of our conversation:

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

For starters, he couldn’t even take more than 20 minutes to think of a thoughtful response and he didn’t answer a single question. I walked away from this conversation not caring about his romanticized view of diversity in the workplace, but feeling like he didn’t give a damn about something that impacts people like me on a daily basis, something that impacts my family and what I can provide for them. And as my responses grew longer, trying to explain how his approach was being received and asking for us to meet in person — because it’s easier to give bullshit responses when you don’t have to see how your words are affecting someone — his answers got shorter and shorter.

Ah, the classic “Let Me Give a Half Ass Attempt at Caring so That I Don’t Have to Confront the Fact That I’ve Never Really Thought About This and Don’t Really Want To” act. My favorite.

If you find yourself in a similar conversation, save the semi-thoughtful responses in an attempt to prove to me that “you get it” and instead practice listening, being thoughtful, and being present. In other words, be a human being and prioritize caring about others over caring about how you want people to view you.

The Disconnect Most People Can’t Acknowledge

To be fair, what this Principal said is not unique:

“I believe that working with people that bring a diversity of experiences, background, and perspectives leads to better work and insights.”

“Since we value diversity and believe it improves the work, we continue to look for ways to diversify our workplace when hiring and in forming partnerships.”

We hear this all the time. There are plenty articles written on how “racially diverse companies outperform industry norms” or how “diverse companies see high profit and have better focus.” Yet, the disconnect is found between statements like this and not considering how it’s being received and interpreted by populations underrepresented in tech. In other words, the disconnect is that people forget that this is a conversation and words matter. More times than not, it actually sounds more like this:

“I believe that working with people that bring a diversity of experiences, background, and perspectives leads to more profits and success for me/my company.

“Since we value diversity and believe it improves the work, thereby increasing profits and how marketable our brand/company is, we continue to look for ways to diversify our workplace when hiring and in forming partnerships.”

How most companies implicitly approach increasing diversity in the workplace.

And while I’m sure most people believe that diversity brings “a deeper, fuller better lived life” (or whatever that romanticized statement means), I think that the way people within the tech community talk about it forgets that people are LITERALLY being affected by what is coming out of their mouths. That things like privilege actually influence how you communicate to people.

“It is hard for me to comment on what other people do. I know that is not my approach.”

This was the Principal’s response after my attempt to explain the disconnect between what he was saying and how it is being received.

Now let’s be clear. I’m not nor was I ever talking about “his approach.” I’m talking about how people interpret what is being said and how comments like these make people feel.

I understand that empathy is a huge buzzword in tech — especially in design — but let’s be real: people like the idea of empathy without actually having to practice it. You cannot practice empathy in this conversation without learning two key skills: perspective taking and identifying emotions in others. If we as a community could nail down these two skills, then we could actually begin to go somewhere in this conversation.

“All great insights. What are real things that I can implement in my business to create the change that you and I desire? Have you collected good ideas?”

This was his entire (and final) response after addressing that I wasn’t addressing his approach but how people receive it and after several attempts to schedule an in person meeting. His final response:

“I would love to, but can’t commit to something right now. If you end up writing up an article or finding good resources…please send them my way.”

In other words, “This isn’t important enough for human-connection but send me the quick solutions divorced from actually understanding how this impacts people.”

We still haven’t met in person to continue this conversation.

Interesting Fact: Studies show that people who continually use Botox decrease their capacity for empathy. Why? For starters, it’s important to remember that empathy is largely a non-verbal skill — tone, body language, facial expressions. An increased use of Botox can limit your non-verbal abilities to clearly communicate empathy and emotion through your facial expressions, since its use has the potential to paralyze your facial muscles . If you take anything away from this post, here it is: because of the personal nature of this topic, you need to have in person conversations about it. We need to stop hiding behind a screen.

And this brings me back to this point:

Unacknowledged privilege + No empathy = Shallow and quick solutions without acknowledging the humanity within the problem of diversity in the workplace.

Acknowledged privilege + Empathy = Being human enough to care about people outside of your own experiences.

Greed or Apathy?

At this point, some of you may be wondering if the topic of this post — Greed Over Humanity — is even related to the conversation between me and this Principal. Is it greed that he’s exhibiting or is it just apathy? The answer: Yes.

The Principal — in exhibiting apathy, disinterest, impatience, etc. — plays a passive and implicit role in the culture of “Greed Over Humanity,” a culture that has become too familiar and overlooked in the tech community. It’s individual moments and conversations like these, brief moments of thoughtlessness and missed opportunities for connection, that collectively perpetuate the problems of diversity in tech. Indeed, we should be slow to downplay the severity of even the briefest interaction we may have with other people.

Okay, Now What?

For the sake of not turning this post into a novel, my hope is for us to think differently about the common business case for diversity that we hear too often and have grown apathetic to how it is affecting people. If you can (1) practice two skills in empathy — perspective taking and identifying other’s emotions — and (2) can put yourself on equal ground with those who are the most affected by the barriers that limit diversity in tech, then you don’t need to me to explain the ripples of your commitment to caring about people. You don’t need to wait on management or your work culture to change.

If you can do these two things, you can understand why offering managers financial incentives for hiring “more diverse” applicants is bullshit and only solidifies the power imbalance in the workplace.

If you can do these two things, then you wouldn’t get defensive when someone is trying to discuss a difficult matter that impacts how they and their family flourish.

If you can do these two things, then you can choose courage over comfort and ask your company how they are addressing barriers that prevent or limit diversity in the workplace.

If you can do these two things, then you can recognize times in the past that you have said hurtful and/or unhelpful things to certain co-workers and can be human enough to acknowledge it and ask for forgiveness.

If you can do these two things, then you can start to think about implementing benefits that would make the possibility of a single parent working easier and attainable, like partnering with a local daycare or having a flex schedule.

If you can do these two things, then you’ll start to pick your head up from your desk and ask yourself, “Why are 95% of my co-workers white? How did we get here?”

If you can do these two things, then you can start to intentionally network with people who do not look like you, think like you, or grew up like you.

If you can do these two things, then you’ll be more willing to mentor someone who is struggling to get into the field and is looking to you for guidance and encouragement.

If you can do these two things, then you would go to a Tech Inclusion Career Fair and stop making excuses that there aren’t any capable applicants.

The list goes on and on.

My Challenge to You: Be selfless enough and bold enough to care about people in ways that surpass lip service.

Author: Vivianne Castillo

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