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Tech’s troubling new trend: Diversity is in your head

If the goal can be achieved by hiring a group of 12 white male employees, you can guess who will remain left out

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Discussing her work at Apple at an event last week about fighting racial injustice, Denise Young Smith, the company’s vice-president of diversity and inclusion, said: “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

That’s right: A dozen white men, so long as they were not raised in the same household and don’t think identical thoughts, could be considered diverse. After a furore erupted, Smith clarified her comments in an email to her team that was obtained and published by TechCrunch. It reads in part, “Understanding that diversity includes women, people of colour, L.G.B.T.Q. people, and all underrepresented minorities is at the heart of our work to create an environment that is inclusive of everyone”, and “I regret the choice of words I used to make this point”.

But Smith wasn’t the first to endorse the view in her initial statement. Those of us in the tech industry know that the idea of “cognitive diversity” is gaining traction among leaders in our field. In too many cases, this means that, in the minds of those with influence over hiring, the concept of diversity is watered down and reinterpreted to encompass what Silicon Valley has never had a shortage of — individual white men, each with their unique thoughts and ideas. This shift creates a distraction from efforts to increase the race and gender diversity the tech industry is sorely lacking. This overlaps with the sentiments expressed in a screed by a Google software engineer that critiqued the company’s race and gender diversity efforts and ascribed the unequal representation of women in tech to “biological causes”. It included the line, “Viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity”.

To be sure, cognitive diversity and viewpoint diversity are important. But working to increase them alone won’t do anything to address the well-documented shortcomings that plague tech companies. Whether companies do it intentionally or not, I worry that they will adjust the definition of diversity so that, conveniently, it’s already achieved.

If our focus shifts to cognitive diversity, it could provide an easy way around doing the hard work of increasing the embarrassingly low numbers of blacks and Latinos in the ranks of employees, in leadership roles, as suppliers and vendors, and on boards. The leadership of Apple, where Smith works, was only 3 per cent black and 7 per cent Hispanic in 2016. A recent report by Recode found that women made up at the most 30 per cent of leadership roles and no more than 27 per cent of technical roles at major tech companies. The percentages of black and Latino employees in leadership was even more dismal, ranging from 4 per cent to 10 per cent.

The shift towards focusing on viewpoint or cognitive diversity may trace its roots back to the 1978 Supreme Court decision Regents of the University of California vs Bakke, which set the stage for schools to consider race in admissions because of the educational benefits of diversity, rather than to redress prior discrimination. It is understandable that because the public discourse around affirmative action shifted along these lines, some came to believe that any kind of diversity — including cognitive diversity — must be equally valuable. But that means that the most meaningful ways through which this is formed (cultural, religious, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, ability and especially gender and racial differences) may be forgotten.

If this happens, we could lose an important check on the tendency of people who work at tech companies to hire more people like themselves. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, employee referrals accounted for over 30 percent of all hires in 2016. Employees typically recommend people similar to them in racial identity and gender, so it requires dedicated effort to recruit and hire people who don’t already have identities that match up with those of current employees. Counting up variations of “viewpoints” — however one might do so — won’t achieve that. And, to potential applicants from underrepresented groups, statements about “cognitive diversity” will send an unwelcoming message about a company’s real priorities for inclusion.

As my former Facebook colleague Regina Dugan said recently, even if cognitive diversity is a company’s ultimate goal, “we can’t step away from the idea that diversity also looks like identity diversity”. The effort to hire people with different points of view must not come at the expense of hiring members of actual underrepresented communities who add tangible, bottom-line value — and who deserve to work in tech as much as anyone.

Smith said in the email clarifying her remarks: “Our commitment at Apple to increasing racial and gender diversity is as strong as it’s ever been.” That kind of diversity — the old-fashioned kind, that still remains elusive — is what I hope my industry won’t abandon.

— New York Times New Service

Bari A. Williams is StubHub’s head of business operations for North America and a start-up adviser.

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