Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

Diversity: uses thereof

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

Outside of being a measurement for the presence of oppression, why is diversity a good thing?

In a post several weeks ago a geek feminist made reference to the ideology that companies (particularly in STEM fields) these days feel a bit “embarrassed” by the lack of diversity in their labs, and that by attempting to correct the problem for reasons of not being embarrassed they proved them selves not to “get it” when it came to WHY diversity is something they should strive for. Upon reading this it dawned on me, why IS diversity a good thing?

Obviously the measure of diversity is a good marker for the amount of discouragement marginalized people may be experiencing in particular fields, since there are reasons other than direct oppression involved when a person chooses a career path (i.e. women are encouraged to play with dolls and not soldering irons, black kids are encouraged to play football and basketball and not chess, etc). But it has recently appear to me that other than as a level of measurement, I have NO idea why diversity is by default and in and of itself, a “good thing”.

Is there ever a situation where the stats simply express a tendency devoid of enculturation? (do most boys just not want to be interior decorators? Do most girls not want to be physicists?). I fully acknowledge that obviously women among other “minority” groups have been bared from participating in such endeavors and as such have historically had their interests “shaped” away from what was considered “men’s work”, but I am very curious, should we be trying to “enforce” rather than “enable” equal gender representation for reasons outside of removing oppression?

I’m not certain, but the reference to the post “several weeks ago” (this question dates from early June) may be a reference to my post When your advertising is more diverse than you are, in which I wrote:

For that matter, what do you want diversity for? For all that I and other people who write here really want diversity to be a concern for geekdom, I think having it as solely a checklist thing is a disservice to the people who will comprise the diversity. What are you offering those people? What are they offering you? Is it all one way? Is this about avoiding negative publicity or something more?

53 thoughts on “Diversity: uses thereof

  1. Chris

    Well, one “end” that diversity grants you is that if you’re making something that’s supposed to be useful to as many people as possible, it’s unrealistic to expect you can predict what people want out of it unless you have a team that’s representative to those groups — this suggests that if your engineering team has no women on it, it’s quite plausible that you’ve missed things that are important to 51% of the population!

    As technology becomes even more of the lens that we experience our interactions with the world through, it’s surely commensurately more important that it is crafted with an understanding that makes sense from as many different life experiences as possible.

    (I agree that the presence of diversity seems like a good way to measure moral progress and lack of oppression in a society in general, too.)

  2. Jessica H.

    When I have this conversation with people, I often focus on the practical benefits of diversity: namely, diversity makes groups smarter, more creative, and more capable. There’s a great study out of MIT that shows that having more women in a group makes the whole group perform better. There’s similar results for other types of diversity, particularly for groups that will be working together over time (as opposed to ad-hoc, one-shot groups).

    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/collective-intel-1001.html

    Of course, I much prefer to make the moral argument around diversity, and not to let people get away with the appeal to nature to justify social biases. (Boys “just don’t want” to be interior decorators? Yeah, right. That’s neither a simple nor accurate claim.) But when I’m talking to people who don’t value diversity for its own sake, it’s often most useful to show how they, personally, can benefit from it.

  3. cim

    A homogenous team is not going to ask the right questions, even if they could potentially give the right answers to those questions. As Chris says, this can have real consequences for the final product – and there’s plenty of cases in the archives of this and other sites where tech companies have brought out what they think is a great new feature, that ends up actively endangering a significant number of people (e.g. Google Buzz), or failing in basic “real-world” use cases (e.g. the racist face-recognition tech).

    I wrote a post on The “best” “person” for the job a while back. It’s about quotas in elections, but points 2 and 4 I think apply somewhat to this question too.

  4. Teaspoon

    Diversity is a good thing, in and of itself, because it brings more ideas and more experiences to the table, which has an impact on everything from R&D through problem solving. A lack of diversity in engineering and architecture is what brought us kitchen counters designed for men’s average height rather than women’s average height, even at a time when it was considered “normal” for women to be the ones using the kitchen. It’s also what continues to bring us longer lines for the ladies’ room than the mens’ room in public venues.

    It can help prevent a company from purchasing or developing offensive advertising, like the recent “before and after” ad from Dove that gave the impression that white skin was more beautiful than black or brown skin or those ridiculous commercials from Old El Paso that suggest that not only are Mexican families obsessed with tacos, but they’re too stupid to figure out how to prop up a pre-formed hard shell or figure out that you can serve two kinds of shells at the same dinner.

    Like anything else, it can be done well or poorly, and motivations play a huge part in which way it will go.

  5. Debbie Notkin

    If you want to preach to the choir, to do everything as it’s been done before, to make the same tired mistakes, then diversity is only good if you care about the checklists.

    However, if you want to make the best products or services, diversity is essential.

    Let’s take Google+ as an example. A Google employee acquaintance tells me that the key decision-makers for Google+ are male PoC. They’re having a lot of trouble grasping the reasons why people want the option of anonymity, even after 1) the debacle Google had by making everyone visible to everyone on GoogleWave, and 2) significant internal and external feedback from a wide range of voices explaining why anonymity can in fact be life-saving or necessary for life-saving. They’re entrenched in the Google culture, so their “don’t be evil” maxim is completely determined by a narrow slice of awareness of evil.

    The wider the net of the decision-makers, the less this kind of problem will occur. The wider the net of the people the decision-makers work with, the more chance there is to get the issues talked about. Google is making (in my opinion) bad decisions here, but at least they are opening the floor to a debate about it. Facebook (more white, more male) doesn’t even do that.

    We need diversity because it’s the only way we can learn.

  6. wychwood

    If you want your product to be the best possible, you want the best possible people working on it; therefore you can value diversity as a way of making sure that the best people don’t get turned off your product (service, web app, operating system, hobby…) by things that have nothing to do with the actual content. If you don’t ever hire women, you’re narrowing your pool of potential employees by 50% for no reason.

  7. dillene

    Or you could just quote Major Kusanagi: “Overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”

  8. Becky

    There are several reasons why diversity is a good thing:

    - If you don’t have a diverse group, you are likely missing out on a lot of talent.

    - As Teaspoon mentioned, different people have slightly different needs, and you’re likely to miss some subtleties if you have a homogenous working group.

    - There is sometimes an attitude in the world that straight white men are the default, and everyone else is a special interest group. That reaching out to anyone other than straight white men is some sort of accommodation. Having a genuinely diverse group helps to combat those attitudes.

  9. Lindsey Kuper

    True diversity is diversity of experience. Diversity of experience causes people to challenge their assumptions. I believe that having one’s assumptions challenged eventually makes one a better thinker, so diverse teams eventually outperform homogenous teams.

  10. J

    I think I’d agree with the other comments. I work in a pretty diverse office, and I think this diversity generates some really great discussion and exchange of ideas during which everyone is learning. Diversity leads to broader considerations and more inclusive ideas and, eventually, I believe it leads to innovation.

  11. Kayle

    Yeah, the idea that diversity is not automatically functional is kind of an odd idea that humans came up with out of xenophobia and perhaps subsequently justified the obvious odd or ill effects of closed systems to the point that we think that they are just as good. Extra toes don’t cause harm, but they don’t carry an evolutionary advantage, still they are a perfect illustration of the redundancy brought about by inbreeding.

    i think it’s also possible that we assume that a lack of choice is good, because choice tends to overload, but the streamlining that comes with lack of choice and variable input is not in itself advantageous, and has always been proved to be otherwise. I guess I’m saying that the default assumption *should* be that diversity is good, not the other way around, regardless of how it comes about. And that we even have to argue it speaks to a larger cultural issue based in fear, not progression.

    1. Mary Post author

      Extra toes don’t cause harm, but they don’t carry an evolutionary advantage, still they are a perfect illustration of the redundancy brought about by inbreeding.

      This is a hugely problematic statement. Firstly, if they don’t cause harm, why bring them up as an apparent analogy with a lack of diversity, which you seem to be arguing (with the rest of this thread) does cause harm? Secondly, I’m far from an expert, but a quick look at the genetics of polydactyly suggest that it has a variety of causes, one of which is autosomal dominant mutations, which means it doesn’t matter how genetically diverse the population is, it will be expressed. (It’s shared recessive genes that will end up being expressed more often in a relatively homogeneous population.) Thirdly, invoking the stigma against polydactyly (and since you explicitly brought up ‘inbreeding’, you’re definitely in the territory of evoking both the stigma of polydactyly and the Western stigma about having ancestors who were related) just seems like a bad idea in a thread talking about diversity, or really any thread on this site. We’re not into body or disability shaming.

      1. Mary Post author

        Hrm, well, dominant traits will be shared by relatives too (as long as the dominant trait doesn’t make one less likely to have children), but it’s the emergence of illnesses* linked with recessive genes that are what people are usually concerned about in descendants of relative-pairings.

        * Not that polydactyly necessarily is one, or that illnesses should be shameful.

  12. 2ndnin

    One question though, it seems fairly common in feminist discussions to state that there are no mental differences (meaningfully) between women and men. How does this tie in with diversity mattering given a shorter than average man should have the experience with height issues as a normal height woman for example.

    If there are differences then surely we should expect a non diverse group as femme people tend towards one set of activities and mascu people towards another set?

  13. Chris

    Hi,

    One question though, it seems fairly common in feminist discussions to state that there are no mental differences (meaningfully) between women and men.

    I think you might be confused about the distinction between biological mental differences (which do exist between the genders, but are not particularly well-understood) and differences in life experience. When we talk about increasing diversity, it’s usually the latter that we care about, not the former. The two genders will have different sorts of life experiences regardless of how similar their mental hardware is physically.

    How does this tie in with diversity mattering given a shorter than average man should have the experience with height issues as a normal height woman for example.

    I don’t think it’s at all true that short men have the same experiences relating to height that average-height women have. Short men will be treated by society as being deficient in a way that society doesn’t treat average-height women as being deficient. These sort of differences in how someone has experienced the world are a large part of what we seek to include more of when we act in a way that increases the diversity of our groups.

  14. 2ndnin

    So if it is about life experience then male / female, cis / trans, hetero / homo diversity isn’t what we should be looking at but rather their life experiences. Going on these non-life experiences would then seem to produce groups which are innately not diverse because people with the right backgrounds will tend towards certain professions.

    I have seen this type of faux diversity in both teaching and universities.

    Short men though will be able to design naturally for average height women despite life experience.

    1. Chris

      Short men though will be able to design naturally for average height women despite life experience.

      No, that doesn’t make sense to me. Being a short man doesn’t tell you what it feels like to be someone of average height for their gender, or what it feels like to be female in general, and the hypothetical design we’re imagining might be better if it took those things into account. A short man could only “design naturally” for the experience of average height women in the sense that his design for short men would happen to have some superficial and coincidental overlap with the some of the physical (but not mental) experiences of those women.

  15. 2ndnin

    Taking the kitchen example the experience of being of average height is not the relevant experience though but that of being a certain height. As a 6’4″ guy I find most kitchens are too low for me, I can use my experience as a person with height to extrapolate to other heights and how features allowing a plus and minus height adjustment from an average height would be useful.

    Similar extrapolation works for a lot of other areas, and if I can’t do a reasonable extrapolation I can ask or do some kind of study. My actual experience is less of use than my ability to see how others use what I design.

    The mental differences again seem like an interesting issue. If there are mental differences then we will end up with a faux diversity caused by people moving into fields they feel comfortable in and bring with them the subconscious biases that led them to that field. If there are no differences then being diverse is irrelevant. It seems at each stage a multi disciplinary approach is better than a diverse uni disciplinary approach because you account for those biases.

    As for men not having the experience of women I think in many ways that’s a cop out. Volvo did studies on driving in high heels because they realised they had a large female base. They didn’t simply ask women for their views (surveys and such like are typically flawed because people answer what they think you want to hear) but had the male engineers put on heels and skirts to gain experience and give them the ability to apply it to their field. So experience can be acquired, it’s not unique to one gender barring some biological functions.

    1. Meg

      The problem isn’t so much answering the questions as knowing what the questions are in the first place, and skirts, heels, and short height are all pretty obvious questions. What about the less obvious ones? Someone mentioned the Google Buzz issue, where at least one woman was afraid because GB gave away her physical location and other personal info to her abusive ex. To me, it seems pretty obviously a bad idea to suddenly make sensitive information public without permission or warning, for this reason and others. But it doesn’t look like it was that obvious to the folks on the GB project.

  16. Chris

    Volvo did studies on driving in high heels because they realised they had a large female base. They didn’t simply ask women for their views (surveys and such like are typically flawed because people answer what they think you want to hear) but had the male engineers put on heels and skirts to gain experience and give them the ability to apply it to their field. So experience can be acquired, it’s not unique to one gender barring some biological functions.

    This sounds like a pretty bad idea to me. You’re saying that male engineers who’ve worn high heels for a few hours suddenly know exactly what it’s like to be a woman driving a Volvo car and which affordances should be provided, but my intuition is simply that this isn’t true; that if they actually involved female engineers in the design process they would reach different and better conclusions about what women want out of a car.

    Maybe my intuition is wrong; it’s an empirical question.

    1. Gretchen

      My husband is almost a foot taller than I am and the only way we can find if we can both comfortably drive the same car is to try it. We have had cars which were terrible for him and cars which were terrible for me, so it’s pretty clear that some cars are designed with a height bias. We have also had cars which we could both adjust to be able to drive comfortably.

  17. Libbie

    What a great question!

    I usually don’t post on here, but this question is one I’ve tried answering before, and have an answer to, so I thought I’d give it a go. :-)

    Diversity for the sake of looks, or lack of embarrassment, or for the sake of political correctness, is stupid. It’s superficial and often hurts a hell of a lot more than it helps.

    BUT, do we not, as a society and a culture, value diversity of *thought*? Isn’t part of the point of democracy to have all voices heard, because all ideas have intrinsic value? (If that’s not part of the point of democracy, it should be.)

    So…let’s say we’re in a science lab, of all white men. Let’s say said white men are all observing monkeys, and every ten seconds, they are writing down exactly what the monkey does. Not an interpretation, but exactly what the monkey is doing. This is supposed to be “raw data” – no interpretations, no opinions, but objective facts.

    But all of those white men are going to notice similar things. Not the SAME things, obviously; there is diversity of thought among people of the same class/gender/race/sexual orientation/etc, it’s just a different sort of diversity, not as visible. (Like being a nerd can be.) But they’re still all going to have been brought up as white men, with all the expectations that go along with that. For the sake of this example let’s assume they’re upper-class as well, and be really stereotypical about it.

    Because women are brought up thinking we are, and are more allowed to be, empathetic, we tend to notice different things. Women notice different things than men do…which comedians make fun of all the time, usually to the detriment of women. But we do notice different things, I think definitely because we’re brought up to think we should think a certain way about ourselves and about the world.

    So if you add even one upper-class white woman into that mix of scientists (notice the term now becomes ungendered), she is going to notice different things than the upper-class white men, JUST because she was brought up differently.

    Say two of the monkeys hug briefly, and then move away to find food. The man might not even notice, or might decide to only write down the part where they look for food, and NOT the part where they’re hugging, because to him it’s not as important. To him, the category of “survival” does not include “love”. But the woman might write down the hugging part, because to her, she knows that empathetic connections are essential to life, and has been allowed to show that all her life; the man has not.

    That’s, I think, a really good example of just that one diversity changing scientific data. Because if they’re studying the affects of a certain drug, and one socioeconomic group is all going to notice the same things…we damn well better get some diversity of thought in there, or we’re all gonna die, lol.

    But, really. I like my pills well-tested, thanks.

    So, that’s just gender within one socioeconomic class. But it goes further, to race and religion and nationality and class and sexual orientation and I would even include interests, if you’re a geek or have more mainstream interests, because I think we notice different things too. But, really, *anything*.

    Diversity of thought is good in ANY field. The scientific data one is a good example, but it works for anything. Why would you want just one opinion from, say, your doctor? Don’t we value second opinions already? Why get them both from white upper class men who very possibly see from very similar perspectives? Why not go for more diversity so you get a more complete picture of the world?

    And interior design? I’m bored of what I see in magazines. I want new ideas that DON’T fit into cultural norms for how to decorate my house, because *I* don’t fit into cultural norms, so why would I want my house to?

    And books. And movies. (Aren’t you sick of the same goddamn plots, over and over and over again?) And teachers. (Why should only white teachers be teaching white children? I would want children learning from ALL perspectives; not just Slavery Month and Woman Month and White Straight Men The Rest Of The Year, but real, true diversity of thought.) And architects. (Let’s have more weird buildings! They’re all so…straight.) And construction workers – what about rich white people who just like to work with our hands?

    Mixing it all up, mixing all of US up, is what freedom IS. :-) A rainbow of all of us, going where our hearts lie, because our hearts lie there, and not because we would feel ashamed to be a construction worker because we’re white or a scientist because we’re a black lesbian woman.

    It also means better scientific research – different people, from different backgrounds, are just going to notice different things, which can only be good. (There are SO MANY scientific theories that are still used, that are racist and sexist, because they were developed and are only tested by rich white heterosexual men. MIX IT UP!!) Better movies, better books, better doctors, better art, better buildings, less racism, less sexism, less homophobia, and better lives. For everyone.

    That’s what diversity really means. :-)

  18. Lucy Kelvin

    You’ve all made excellent responses, to which the only thing I can think to add is:

    Diversity makes life more textured, rounded, complex, interesting. If everyone was identical, how tedious that would be!

  19. Kali Tal

    Everyone has already made a lot of excellent points, so I’ll just give one more reason.

    One of my favorites systems thinkers, Gregory Bateson, notably said (when asked by his daughter to define “objectivity”) that “Objectivity means that you look very hard at what you choose to look at.” (Quoting from memory here, since I don’t have my copy of “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” at hand.

    Diversity is a Good Thing because it provides us with more frames of reference from which to *objectively* view the world: different groups, with different cultural frames, and different group and personal identities *look at different things.* In short (if science is based on agreed upon standards of measurement), diversity increases the chances that we will find 1) new things to measure; 2) new tests for the accuracy of our measurements; and, 3) new tools to measure things we never would have thought of measuring before.

    In my opinion, too many people treat the diversity issue as a primarily decorative task (finding “representative” people, which devolves into a form of tokenism no matter how many “representers” one hires), rather than as a strategy for broadening human knowledge via encouraging more stringent intellectual measures and testing. The view from one frame of reference may simply not contain a large and influential object one can see from another frame of reference. There are always qualified people of diverse backgrounds that one *can* hire, and, in my opinion, it’s well worth the effort it takes to find them because the outcome of a diverse group’s work is likely to be more robust under more conditions that the outcomes of an homogenous group.

  20. 2ndnin

    Libbie, I assume you don’t mean to be horribly insulting but you tar everyone of a massive class with a single brush. Those scientists should be recording everything they can if they are looking for raw data. Similarly to assume a female scientist would notice hugging because she is female and has been allowed to express feminine traits ignore the massively overlapping bell curves of behaviour and negates any feminine men. Even worse is that the female scientist is likely to be similar in personality type to the men she is working with so may have fewer feminine traits in the first place.

    If we need diversity like that then our enter system of education and work is flawed because we train specialists rather than generalists.

    Chris, revealing privacy doesn’t occur to a lot of people especially when putting together a system. If you want that then you should talk to my dad rather than my mum. While she will give out information he won’t. Besides a surname and location or first name is generally enough to track someone down now due to things like census records, reverse lookups an Facebook. So the level of privacy beyond total is like a lock on your car, it deters common thieves not professionals or someone who really wants it.

    1. Meg

      My name is Meg, not Chris; I assume you mean me because Chris didn’t bring up privacy at all. If the devs in your area aren’t thinking privacy when they design a social network, that’s a problem, not an excuse. Social network privacy has been an issue for many years now, and poor privacy design has enabled stalking, unfair job losses, death threats, and murder. Are you really that cavalier about your users’ basic safety and well-being? You can kill someone with a pillow, but that doesn’t clear the conscience of those cheerfully handing out free guns to violent people.

      The woman I’m referring to never even signed up for GB; not sure if you’re aware of this but the service had an issue where it automatically signed up Gmail users and was impossible to deactivate. Basically, she trusted Google with private data on Google Reader, and then GB turned around and blabbed it all publicly without any warning. That’s just irresponsible.

      1. 2ndnin

        Sorry for the name confusion Meg.

        Data privacy isn’t the first concern of people building a social network because the first thing they are designing is a way to share information. For something like Facebook with a flat structure (all your friends can see your friends etc) then privacy was likely the last thing on their minds. When you get something more hierarchical (more modern facebook, google+ etc) you start to get more privacy as a default because information isn’t shared to everyone. The original designs for social networks wasn’t so you could post those drunken photos and friend your bosses, that came later, the original designs were very limited.

        I don’t know what GB is but that is a privacy breach that shouldn’t have occurred because it is sharing across platforms. Now if she gave it her gmail address and password then that’s a different issue entirely, computers can’t easily tell that you have your ex on your email contacts list and don’t like him / want him to follow you.

        There is no easy way in a social network to control the flow of data outside of your profile. If your friends post something about you then it will get flagged in other circles… monitoring this is a literal nightmare. Privacy isn’t a simple toggle when other people are involved.

        1. Mary Post author

          GB is Google Buzz, a Google product. She didn’t give it her Gmail password because it was a Google product. The original story is here.

          Computers indeed can’t tell (reliably, you could apply statistical techniques given good training data) that someone you email is someone you do/don’t want to social network with, and that’s why Google shouldn’t have made assumptions. To give a milder example, in the past Google automatically connected people who emailed each other frequently as GChat contacts too, leaving some people in my research group disconcerted to suddenly find that their boss or PhD supervisor had access to their GChat availability status messages, which were intended for friends rather than bosses.

          Communicating with someone does not imply friendship with them or trust in them.

        2. M

          Here’s the thing, though. Most people do not think about all the little dangers that exist in every corner of their lives. If they did, given the complexity of life today, we would have no time to get anything else done. This is why natural gas is muddled with chemicals to make it smell like rotten eggs — but people should keep their pipes maintained! This is why smoke alarms will go off nonstop when they’re low on batteries — but people should remember to change them! If rotten egg smell and noisy smoke alarms were optional, how many people do you honestly believe would think to make those features a priority?

          When users sign up for a service, most aren’t thinking about privacy, but they’ll sure as hell be mad if you screw around with their privacy anyway. There have been enough incidents now that we as developers should know that there is a safety risk. It is OUR responsibility as developers to design the privacy controls in such a way that the default behavior is safe, and unsafe choices need to be made consciously by the user (like taking the damn batteries out so the alarm will stop whining). That didn’t happen on GB and it doesn’t happen on Facebook. Currently, default Facebook shares different things with different levels of users, and it’s not really that intuitive which is which. Additionally, when they’ve changed how privacy settings work in the past, they switched a lot of people over to some very public settings, no matter what level of privacy they were at before, publicizing information that was posted privately. Many of the job losses attributed to FB come not from friending bosses, but users caught off guard by how much of their profile is shown to everyone. If figuring out better privacy controls than this is too hard, perhaps it’s because you haven’t been thinking about privacy from Day 1. Possibly MySpace and Facebook have the excuse that they were unaware about the privacy risks when they did the initial design. Google Buzz doesn’t, and neither does any new system. And aren’t we discussing the impact diversity can have on the design of new systems anyway?

        3. Gretchen

          Privacy in online communities is a topic as ancient as online communities themselves, i.e. for decades before modern sites such as Facebook were even imagined, and it is well-discussed and well-known in the field. Any programmer who designs a social network without providing for personal privacy is about as responsible as a surgeon who never washes her hands.

    2. Meg

      I just thought of this today, but GB could have easily created motivation that wasn’t already there, since it was sharing articles she read and her GR comments on them. I doesn’t sound like her ex was actively stalking her before her GB info got let out, but IIRC she only shared items on GR with her current SO, which means some of the articles/comments could have been pretty personal stuff. An article or two about surviving abuse, along with some commentary about how it applies to her old relationship, could *easily* set off a violent ex. When GR comments came out, the team stressed that it wanted users to be able to have private conversations, so it seems more than a little cruel for GB to turn around and publish them afterwards.

      Whether or not this was a concern in her specific case, there’s no shortage of people who have been in violent relationships, and they use the internet too. Plus it also applies to some of the other usual drawbacks of poor privacy design. Say your work knows your personal email, and you post a private GR comment about them that’s unflattering. Or your GR activity reveals that you have some hobbies they may disapprove of.

      1. Meg

        “I doesn’t sound like her ex was actively stalking her before her GB info got let out,”
        ** “IT doesn’t sound like her ex was actively stalking her WHEN her GB info got let out,”

        Coffee time, I think.

  21. Hilary Burrage

    Yes indeed, to almost all the responses above. You might find the research of the London Busienss School in relation to gender of interest here.

    It seems that FTSE and FORTUNE 100 companies that attend to gender and other diversity issues right up to Board level actually perform better than the others.

    http://www.womens-forum.com/index.php/main/resources/theme/3/date gives some of the sources, albeit sometimes focussing on the percentage of women &c involvde, not on organisational outcomes / results.

  22. 2ndnin

    Indeed simply talking to someone doesn’t mean you want to friend them. That’s why it’s difficult to auto manage.

    The google buzz thing from that thread appears to have been a coding error. There were privacy settings on most of the connected services but buzz ignored them temporarily. It does seem like a mistake. However at the same time if people were that interested in privacy they could have set up accounts for their separate tasks.

    It’s a significant issue but until recently have we really considered how we separate people? I know my contact list includes work, personal and private contacts which I would like to deaggregate from each other. At the same time I keep my Facebook account safe for work because I know potential employers can see it.

  23. Jayn

    It really does have to do with people bringing new viewpoints to the table. No one person can do everything, and while we should all try to cover all our bases, it’s easier if we can rely on others to find the holes we miss. Personally, I’m studying visual design and accessibility will probably be a larger focal point for me than for others. For example, I’m from a very rural area, and website loading times are a bit of a pet concern of mine because I remember too well trying to navigate flash-based sites on a 56k connection. While I’m busy trying to streamline a site, maybe there’s a Mac user in the corner trying to get it to work better in Safari. Could I work on the Safari issues? Probably, but it’s not going to be my first thought because I don’t ever use Safari, and I wouldn’t know as well what kinds of problems to expect.

    That’s what diversity brings. We can cover each other’s blind spots, instead of trying to peek around every corner ourselves.

  24. Angel H.

    I’ve just never understood why anyone *wouldn’t* want to diversify their team (other than outright bigotry), especially when designing a product.

    Why diversity?
    Why not?

  25. Addie

    Thanks for posting this. I said something like this in the comments section of the article you were referencing, Mary, so there were several of us making this claim. I remember one of the commenters also mentioned there that they didn’t understand what the point of diversity was, either.

    It seems that there are a bunch of people who “get” this and a bunch of people who just don’t. They understand that they’re supposed to value diversity, but they’ve never been able to tease out the “why”. These responses have been excellent, and I hope they fill things in for people who still find themselves asking this question. Like commenter Lucy mentioned, a life that’s open to diversity is a whole lot more rich and fulfilling, so people who aren’t stepping out of their homogenous comfort zones due to that initial bit of discomfort are missing out.

    I continue to see the drawbacks of homogenous groups on a weekly basis, and it’s not fun to be the lone detractor in so many discussions just because my experience and perspective are often so sharply different. Sticking out not just superficially but on experiences as well is exhausting.

  26. James

    I am part of a team that does highly specialised work, which requires little input with regard to lifestyles of the general public. Whether someone in our team has low or high muscle mass, wears skirts or pants, high heels or Chuck Taylors doesn’t really matter to us. What matters is that they have many if not all of the varied skills we are looking for, which, as it turns out, is a pretty rare combination. It makes sense for us to be positioned as best we can to attract people with those skills from any cultural background.

    But, as I said, operationally, that doesn’t really matter to us. In that context, what really matters is diversity of relevant work experience and relevant skills, diversity of working and cognitive styles. There are half a dozen of us, all male, all between the ages of 27-33 , two born and raised in foreign nations (in South America and southern Europe), the rest born here with various Anglo-Celtic-Germanic ancestry. The shortsighted might say that this is monocultural. But, we have a strong extrovert, three strong introverts and two in the middle. We have neurotypicals, an almost-certain Aspie and a couple in between. Collectively, we have experience as consultants, in private industry, in government and in education. That is (part of) the diversity that matters to us. The Latino in our team who is an excellent web programmer doesn’t have those skills because of some unique Latino perspective, it’s something he’s done a lot of before.

    Likewise, in the case of the Google Buzz controversy, it is not necessarily true at all that the gender or racial balance of whatever team made the decisions on privacy controls had anything to do with it. Of the people who are my Facebook friends, the gender split of people who are prepared to share things that I probably wouldn’t is roughly even, possibly leaning more toward the women. A predominately male team with diversity on the Extroversion-Introversion scale might well have gotten the desired result, which is not to say that that is a reason to not form a gender/racial-diverse team, but that the diversity important in that particular context may not be in gender or race.

    1. Kali Tal

      I’ve heard this quite a bit before. It’s the insistence that in some fields we need to hire on “skill” criteria and not “racial diversity” criteria. But I’d bet you dollars to donuts that “skills” aren’t the only thing that counts in your advertising and hiring process. What counts is who you go looking for, and who you feel “fits in” to your team. If your team is all-male and almost all white, and you base your claim of being diverse on the fact that they have different personalities, I think you have a problem. Because there’s no “personality” group out there claiming it’s been discriminated against on a mass and massively documented scale. Your claim is common among white men who practice “business as usual,” and attempt to redefine “diversity” to suit them.

      As a diversity counselor, I’ve witnessed this attempt at redefinition many, many times. My experience is that, in these cases, women and non-whites continue not to be hired and the fact of discrimination is never actually addressed. (I once worked for a U.S. organization that claimed that it was okay that they had no black members, because the group was so *linguistically* diverse — needless to say, they continued to have no black members.)

      In this case, unless you’re part of the solution, you continue to be part of the problem. I respect this “skills” argument *only* when the organization in question is also putting serious resources into finding under-represented folks who *do* have those skills, and into programs that provide training opportunities to members of discriminated-against groups. Otherwise, in my opinion, it’s just an attempt to claim a position of “neutrality” that somehow lies outside the discriminatory practices of majority culture.

      1. James

        “I’ve heard this quite a bit before. It’s the insistence that in some fields we need to hire on “skill” criteria and not “racial diversity” criteria. But I’d bet you dollars to donuts that “skills” aren’t the only thing that counts in your advertising and hiring process. What counts is who you go looking for, and who you feel “fits in” to your team. ”

        The OP was about why diversity is good for you. I explicitly stated that because the skills we were after were so specific that it made sense to appeal to as diverse a range of candidates as we can. I’m sure we fail at this, however, HR handle all of the advertising and our hiring criteria is written to their template. They are entirely female, and our organisation, overall, is slightly majority female, and the racial composition is more or less representative of the society we live in. I doubt that they don’t know how to advertise jobs where women or people of diverse racial backgrounds will see them. We are also subject to their diversity policy.

        Nonetheless, for the last 3 positions we hired for (since I’ve been there), we received about 60 applicants, one of which was a woman, and she was so underqualified that it would have been unethical (and probably illegal) to hire her. No relevant experience, none of the specific skills we were looking for. The racial diversity situation is much the same with regard to applications received. We have interviewed, to my recollection, three East Asian men. One appeared very well qualified on paper and seemed to have reasonable knowledge in the interview, but his approach to problem solving was to delegate or buy the solution. He is probably a very effective manager somewhere, but we weren’t hiring one. The other two were nowhere near the required level of relevant knowledge.

        “If your team is all-male and almost all white, and you base your claim of being diverse on the fact that they have different personalities, I think you have a problem. Because there’s no “personality” group out there claiming it’s been discriminated against on a mass and massively documented scale. Your claim is common among white men who practice “business as usual,” and attempt to redefine “diversity” to suit them. ”

        That the neurodiverse do not have terribly effective cheer squads doesn’t make discrimination any less real, nor does it decrease the magnitude of diversity from the norm.

        What if we had an 18 year old, a 23 year old, a 27 year old, a 35 year old, a 47 year old and a 65 year old? Would that be not-diverse because they were all male and 5/6ths white?

        Are there any parameters for diversity that you would consider valid other than gender and race? If not, isn’t that a pretty radical redefinition of “diversity”?

        In this case, unless you’re part of the solution, you continue to be part of the problem. I respect this “skills” argument *only* when the organization in question is also putting serious resources into finding under-represented folks who *do* have those skills, and into programs that provide training opportunities to members of discriminated-against groups. Otherwise, in my opinion, it’s just an attempt to claim a position of “neutrality” that somehow lies outside the discriminatory practices of majority culture.

        We barely have funding to do essential work, “reason we exist”-type stuff. If management could give us the sort of resources necessary to pursue these under-represented-but-possessing-the-skills-we-want people you speak of, that would be great. I don’t know whether the diversity policy makes any mention of this or not; I’m not in management nor HR so it’s not anything I’m required to know (though I’m interested to find out now). As it is, we are now attempting to backfill a vacant position that we would mutate from a non-technical into a semi-technical role that would ideally be filled by a woman who was let go from another team that has some relevant knowledge that we might be able to train to a point of taking over from one of the fully-technical positions; we can’t get funding for it (“hiring freeze”, though they seem to find plenty of money to waste on …aah, another story). Is that what you were talking about re: training opportunities? Are you talking about training people from within? Or hiring people to train them?

      2. James

        Anyway, what I was heading toward saying, but veered away from, was that while I’ll stipulate that diversity is good for society in general, and good for organisations (and organisational units down to whatever granularity you like) due to the increase in hiring pool size, people have been talking about diversity introducing new perspectives that might otherwise be missed. I’m not so sure that there is say, a female perspective on malware analysis. I know a couple in the field, and their work is not discernibly of any particular gender perspective. Is there an African perspective on web app architecture? In customer-facing product R&D, sure, in backend system work, I’m not sure.

        1. Teaspoon

          Part of the problem with this framing is that it makes the white male perspective the default to which other perspectives are compared. White men are not the default human. You will never know if there’s a female perspective or an African perspective on malware analysis if you aren’t creating a situation where those perspectives might come into play.

          Your insistence that other perspectives don’t matter completely erases the systemic things in play that make most of the offices around the US doing the work you do, all look similiar to yours…disproportionately white and male. Women and minorities are still discouraged in myriad ways from going into STEM fields, and while there are more role models today than there were a decade ago, there remain structural barriers to entry into the field. One of the things that helps break down those barriers is a commitment to diversity in hiring.

          I note that you’re also resting your claim of being “neurodiverse” on an armchair diagnosis and tokenism. Further, you ask if a wider variety of ages would still make your team “not diverse.” It would make it more diverse than it currently is, and age discrimination is alive and well, so it would be a good thing to encourage applicants from a wider age range in new hires. But your team would still be pretty homogenous, and no, it shouldn’t get a pass just because the work it does happens “out of sight.”

  27. James

    Part of the problem with this framing is that it makes the white male perspective the default to which other perspectives are compared. White men are not the default human. You will never know if there’s a female perspective or an African perspective on malware analysis if you aren’t creating a situation where those perspectives might come into play.

    I interact with malware analysts all over the world; admittedly few female, but I can tell you that the primary differences in output are based on:

    * Time and money permitted to spend on analysis
    * Preference for top-down vs bottom-up (though usually there is a hybrid approach)
    * Preference for dynamic vs static analysis (again, usually some kind of hybrid)
    * Preference for particular tools
    * What the analyst aims to achieve, which may be different depending on their role

    Some of these things are as different from one desk to the next in a “homogeneous” team as they are across oceans. The malware found infecting computers in Brazil is not /substantially/ (yes, different financial institutions are phished between countries) different to that infecting computers in Russia or Germany. There is no Brazilian perspective on vmprotect. There is no Russian perspective on whether a process should hook disk I/O in the kernel. There is no German perspective on injecting code into an Internet Explorer process. If any of those things are viewed from a perspective other than privileged white male, I would be intrigued.

    Women and minorities are still discouraged in myriad ways from going into STEM fields, and while there are more role models today than there were a decade ago, there remain structural barriers to entry into the field. One of the things that helps break down those barriers is a commitment to diversity in hiring.

    As I said, HR post our job ads in the same place where they post job ads for positions that are regularly populated with diversity in gender (actually, women are slightly over-represented), sexual orientation (observable to the extent that they are open about it, some are, more may not be) and racial background roughly representative of the society from which they are drawn. We aren’t posting them on the walls of the gents’ latrines in strip clubs. Maybe they should go further. HR are apparently satisfied that we meet the diversity policy, and we are in no position to ask for funding on HR’s behalf if this isn’t good enough given that we have enough trouble getting the money we need to stay alive.

    I note that you’re also resting your claim of being “neurodiverse” on an armchair diagnosis and tokenism.

    You don’t and cannot possibly know that.

    Further, you ask if a wider variety of ages would still make your team “not diverse.” It would make it more diverse than it currently is, and age discrimination is alive and well, so it would be a good thing to encourage applicants from a wider age range in new hires. But your team would still be pretty homogenous

    Is there a standard scale of diversity attributes? Would such a hypothetical team be less diverse than an all-female team, each from a different continent, all the same age, all extroverts, all interested in travel, all having studied the same degree (at different universities)?

    no, it shouldn’t get a pass just because the work it does happens “out of sight.”

    I never said it should, and that is way out of context. We don’t get a pass, we are subject to the same HR policies as every other team in the organisation.

    What I actually said with regard to being “out of sight” is that diversity serves a different purpose for us than it does for a team doing R&D for a product that will be taken to a market of diverse consumers.

    1. Teaspoon

      You seem to be very invested in explaining why it’s okay that your team has no women and a token racial minority. If you value diversity, you might want to examine that investment in being an exception sometime, but I’m out of energy for the 101 review.

      1. Dee

        So I see you’re out of energy in replying to James… or is it that you’re tired of trying to force your particular opinion on the matter where others refuse to submitting to it?

        No one can really say out right that diversity in the workplace is a bad thing to have. But diversity will inevitably have its place depending on the available people qualified for the job – it may just not be viable in any regard. However, your strong point of view suggests that you would prefer enforced diversity, which can be detrimental to any team and their work outcomes regardless of the occupation. Please correct me if I’m wrong in this assumption.

        I’m a female that has previously worked in male dominated industries, each experience resulting in different outcomes. In one workplace which only employed 2 or 3 other females, it was part of my job to give my opinion on a wide range of products within the industry. It was MY opinion. And yes, while my opinion would have been influenced by my gender and age, they were not the sole influences. My upbringing, my personal experience and knowledge, and my general personality traits all played part in the formulation of my opinion. In spite of this, my opinions would often agree with that of your typical white male, because that was what the products were geared towards.

        Previously, I have also worked in a more technical helpdesk role as the only female on that team. In this situation, my gender, age, personality, upbringing, etc. did not affect my role. My being female was a completely independent factor on whether the client on the phone needed to choose one setting from the other. My personality had nothing to do with whether the client had to reset to factory defaults or not. The choices were finite, and based solely on the clients situation and needs.

        Essentially, I am stating that each workplace has its own requirements, to which workplace diversity may or may not be beneficial. Personally, I wouldn’t choose to not take a medicine because the pharmaceutical team behind it were all male. Conversely, I would probably opt to not take a medicine because that team employed people that did not necessarily have the appropriate skills, simply because they thought their team needed to be “diversified”.

        James never said that other perspectives didn’t matter in the way you appear to perceive it. In the examples that he gave, he was suggesting that perspectives are hardly relevant, as is with anything that doesn’t relate directly to people, people’s thoughts or behaviours. If you can find me a gender-biased perspective on (3x + 2y)(4x + 3y) where x = 4, please, be my guest. Similarly, a Middle Eastern perspective on 1+1 will not be different to that of a British person, or any other race, gender or age.

        Additionally, I feel that in fervent opposition for the white male perspective and the search for an alternative, you can be actually discriminating in your own right, as yes, it is possible to discriminate against a majority. Predominately white male teams, especially in the IT industry, have done some good work – not because of their “white male” perspective, but because they are genuinely good at what they do. And to suggest we disregard a team and their hard work based on their composition is not only misguided, but disrespectful.

  28. James

    I’m familiar with 101, thanks.

    Short of either headhunting qualified women and paying them more than what my boss earns to lure them away from their current jobs, paying someone full-time to scour the internet to PI/stalker intensity looking for qualified and available women, or lowering our hiring criteria and having one of us run training full time for months to train up to standard the almost-0 female applicants we get when we post jobs in gender neutral locations, having gotten management approval to create another full-tech position during a hiring freeze, all of which would virtually double our annual spend, I don’t know what you want us to do.

    You seem to be very invested in steadfastly ignoring what I write and making unfounded assumptions, so it appears further effort (at least on this subthread) will be futile.

    For what it’s worth, both our “token” South American and the woman we are trying to get approval to create a semi-tech/semi-admin position to be able to hire LOLed heartily at your post.

  29. Mary Post author

    James: at this point you’ve had ample space to have your say (5 comments, most quite long by this site’s standards). I approved Dee’s comment because it seems reasonable to allow comment from both sides of the argument, but can this be wound down now? It seems like it’s reached the point where everyone’s had a chance to explain themselves and no one is changing their mind.

  30. Kali Tal

    Dee, this is a straw woman argument:

    “Personally, I wouldn’t choose to not take a medicine because the pharmaceutical team behind it were all male. Conversely, I would probably opt to not take a medicine because that team employed people that did not necessarily have the appropriate skills, simply because they thought their team needed to be “diversified”.”

    No one said that all male, or all white, or all-anything teams can’t do good work. And no one said anything about boycotting anything produced by homogenous teams. And no one but you said anything about “forced” diversity — that’s a right wing “quotas” argument, and quotas have never been a part of affirmative action, no matter what Fox News says. Affirmative action is about seeking qualified applicants among under-represented groups, and about training members of under-represented groups in professions in which they are under-represented. Period.

    There’s simply no sense in arguing affirmative action on an individual level because it’s a social problem that exists whether or not it is *enforced* by a particular individual or a particular team. No individual be defined simply as a member of a category, but categories do exist and people *are* discriminated against on the basis of their membership. For example, new figures came out on income disparity in the U.S.: (http://www.npr.org/2011/07/26/138688135/study-shows-racial-wealth-gap-grows-wider)

    “The average wealth of a white
    family in 2009 was 20 times greater than that of the average
    black family, and 18 times greater than the average Hispanic
    family. In other words, the average white family had $113,149
    in net worth, compared to $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for
    blacks.

    “That’s the largest gap since the government began collecting
    the data a quarter of a century ago, and twice what it was
    before the start of the Great Recession.”

    No single individual is responsible for that huge categorical distinction — it’s the cumulative effect of millions of single individuals enforced by social institutions. In a system that oppresses, though, the only way you can not be oppressive is to work against the system. Otherwise you inadvertently add your weight to the wheel that crushes other folks. This is why feminism and antiracism and antihomophobia, etc must be active instead of passive practices.

    To be complacent about the homogenous nature of a team, and to justify its lack of racial/gender/etc diversity on the basis of some sort of “specialness,” or by redefining diversity so it is not longer connected to the oppressions it was intended to describe, is to be the instrument of oppression, whether one intends it or not. Sure, there are situations in which a diverse group can simply not be assembled because of lack of applicants, etc. But the *commitment* to diversity must be there, and, if one can’t immediately effect changes in one’s work environment, then one can at least admit there’s a problem and attempt to seek some solutions.

    But James is stuck on insisting that racial/gender diversity simply don’t *matter* in his field, because somehow, in its purity, the skills necessary to do the job are independent of race/gender/etc. This purity argument is one that scientists have used, time immemorial, to argue that women, etc. don’t have anything “special” to offer such a group. But science as a discipline has passed the stage where it’s able to justify such an argument and has been concerned, for decades now, with diversifying its practitioner base. The “neutrality” of science has been successfully questioned by two generations of feminist and race scholars. Technology lags behind for a variety of reasons, none of which serve as good excuses.

    The men who who argue for that outmoded notion of “neutrality” will always be supported by women who prefer to see themselves as individuals *only*, and who refuse to recognize that their membership in a particular group has shaped their reception in all aspects of society. These men will hold out the women who agree with them as “evidence” that the arguments of those who are actually qualified to offer educated opinions on race/gender/class are “wrong.” This is exactly what the right wing does with its token female and non-white members (in fact, it seeks and promotes minority members who will support their position). But the ability to produce tokens (who are also often unwitting) is a rhetorical and not a substantive tactic. For example, the huge majority of African Americans are very liberal Democrats, and in the face of that, statistically, the Clarence Thomases, and the Wests, and the Sowells, etc. mean nothing. They are flags to wave but there are no armies behind them.

    So any time a white man dismisses a gender argument based on the fact that the women working with or for him “laughed” at it, that’s a red flashing light that sexism is in progress. And if it’s in evidence in a man’s rhetoric, it’s highly likely to be in evidence in his practice.

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