Diversity Programs aka The Big Illusion and Implicit Bias

Everywhere you turn lately, you seem to come across another article on diversity (including this one which might just piss you off). It's interesting to see companies highlight their programs to the media in an effort to save face. Unfortunately, the inefficiencies of their diversity programs and the lack of effective actions behind them is evident in the numbers and can't be candy coated.

Tech companies will continue to struggle with diversity representation in racial ethnic minority groups and women (i.e. African-American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian) until the supply of diverse tech talent has grown enough to meet the demands. Even with an increase in enrollments for college computer science and STEM programs over the next 5-10 years, the talent supply will still be playing catch-up to meet the future demands.

Companies are really dialed into ethnic diversity but let's not forget about veterans, people with disabilities or LGBT and how these categories of diverse talent factor into the supply. They have the potential to play a larger role than you think.

So where does this leave us? With all of the hoopla over tech giants releasing diversity numbers, how do we solve for this shortage in the short-term (no pun intended)? The high level answer is to increase the talent pool from traditional sources and focus more on recruiting and STEM education programs that target veterans, people with disabilities, HBCU's, women and niche organizations like yearup.org amongst others. This works well for entry level talent but doesn't move the needle for experience talent through to the C-Suite.

Stop The Madness With Your Diversity Programs

Diversity programs are still being ran with old thinking and are a byproduct of Affirmative Action. They take advantage of perception being reality and are nothing more than eye candy for the media, while painting a false picture of progress to the employees.

Here's a recent example, Google and Jesse Jackson team on high-tech diversity. This initiative looks great on the outside and may even give you a positive feeling about Googles diversity efforts. However, this effort may also return dismal results if the work doesn't move beyond the training sessions held this past August. In addition, resources must bee committed and sustained. Diversity efforts aren't realized overnight.

In this article by Molly McElroy written April 16th 2013, titled "Diversity programs give illusions of corporate fairness, study shows" she highlights research that point to the illusion that diversity programs are today.

Here's an excerpt: “Our fear is that companies may prematurely stop thinking about diversity among their workers because they’ve credentialed themselves with these programs,” said Cheryl Kaiser, lead author and a UW associate professor of psychology. “Our findings suggest that diversity programs can be window dressing – even those that do very little to increase diversity may still be perceived as effective.”

Shocker? No, not really, all of the companies releasing numbers recently have many diversity programs in place but yet the results are dismal for most.

My experience is there are a few programs that are moving the needle in diversity but most fall into the category described in the article.

New Thinking: Companies Are Built With Diversity And Inclusion Ingrained Into The Culture

Whether a multi-national company or a small company experiencing globalization. Growing your business with diversity at the forefront should be at the center of your strategy. Product development, marketing, and the ability to compete in the global market place are a few reasons why your company should be in the diversity and inclusion business.

According to the European Disability Forum: One in four Europeans has a family member with a disability. That's over 15% of the entire European population with a disability.

According to the BBC reported just this year "The UK's 11.9 million disabled people are said to have disposable income collectively worth £80bn."

80 Billion Euro that’s a lot of spending power. Are your products being developed with an inclusive approach to capture some of this populations spend?

Women purchasing power is through the roof. You can read more here: Marketing to Women: Surprising Stats Show Purchasing Power & Influence

If women aren't a part of your creation process for software development or product development; shame on you. Not to mentions you're clearly missing out on market share.

Don't lose sight of the real mission of diversity which is inclusion. Inclusion must be inherent. It involves leveraging the power of the differences & similarities to effectively integrate everyone into the culture of the organization leading to better products and services.

Discrimination In The Workplace

Discrimination can be born from racism. Racism is an awful parasite that lives in the host and can manifest itself in many ways. The most common way it comes to life in the workplace is through explicit and implicit bias.

Explicit bias - you can call these conscious actions, on purpose with the intent usually to offend someone.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses implicit bias in his bestseller, Blink, this way:

All of us have implicit biases to some degree. This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first “blink” sends us certain information. Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response and its value and role is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005).

Professor Jerry Kang from UCLA Law School says this about implicit bias:

"We naturally assign people into various social categories divided by salient and chronically accessible traits, such as age, gender, race, and role. And just as we might have implicit cognitions that help us walk and drive, we have implicit social cognitions that guide our thinking about social categories. Where do these schemas come from? They come from our experiences with other people, some of them direct (i.e., real-world encounters) but most of them vicarious (i.e., relayed to us through stories, books, movies, media, and culture)."

Sometimes we just can't help ourselves, it's intrinsic to who we are and purely based on our life experiences.

<Begin Quick Rant here> Don't ask the black person at your job or anywhere, if you can touch their hair. It just really shows how much you lack cultural dexterity. We don't really like it. And yes, the hair is styled, we don't just jump out of bed and go to work.

And for the record… All black people don't know each other. All Asians don't know karate. Also, If you see two black people in the same room or in close proximity, don’t assume they're together. You know what assuming gets you. </End Quick Rant here>

Here's an example of implicit bias in the leadership ranks:

Caucasian Tech Executive: attended school at Harvard or Stanford and completed business school. He grew up in the mid-west and had very little interaction with people from other ethnic backgrounds along the way. This person is now in position of authority and can make hiring decision for the company.

When it comes to evaluating diverse talent with this executive, history has shown us that implicit bias comes into play time and time again.

While talking with this executive after the first round of interviews. You begin to hear things like, I'm looking for a culture fit, I didn't get a good feel for him or her, It was kind of hard for me to understand him or her, or do you think he or she can be successful here?

This executive will probably end of hiring someone from their network. What I've found is that usually the person from their network looks just like them from an ethnicity perspective.

This example works both ways and I've seen reverse discrimination as well. The executive could be Black, East Indian, or Asian and all of the variables can be slightly different. The point is, implicit bias strikes more often than you know it. One way to recognize implicit bias is by being self-aware of your decisions and why you make them. Also, taking time to try and understand the root or motivation of your personal tendencies and beliefs.

About 6 years ago at Microsoft, I developed a framework that was designed to tear down implicit bias. I did this by extending our executives network with top diverse talent that we were interested in hiring at some point. This work was not about filling a role, it was about getting executives comfortable with people who didn't look like them. It was about educating executives on other cultures, effective working and communication styles, as well as perspectives. It was about building trust with unknown territories.

The program is successful and has evolved into a more comprehensive framework.

Here is a great place to test your implicit bias - Implicit Association Test



Instead of ending with a list of the top 5 or 7 recommendations. I thought I'd sum it up a bit differently today. In the spirit of giving feedback, here's the feedback on some things that need to be started, stopped, or continued.

  • Start building programs that increase employees cultural dexterity
  • Stop calling diversity a program
  • Continue to focus on long-term strategies for increasing the supply of diverse talent
  • Start requiring diverse slates for leadership positions (or all positions) and make sure the entire slate of candidates has the same interview process (onsite, etc.). A job shouldn't be filled until diversity has been considered.
  • Stop focusing only on ethnic diversity
  • Start focusing on cognitive diversity, veterans, and people with disabilities in addition to ethnic diversity
  • Start replacing leaders that still think archaic rules and behaviors of the past work today
  • Start building a culture where inclusion is illuminated because of your diverse workforce
  • Start your business planning with inclusion as the foundation of your objective. Keeping inclusion at the forefront makes it extremely hard not to consider diversity
  • Stop lumping East Indians into the Asian ethnic group
  • Start building bridges into the diverse communities that close the gaps by tearing down implicit bias. Have your leadership team and employees give time to organizations like Yearup.org, or Boys and Girls Club of America or digigirlz to help them recognize the potential and get acquainted with cultural differences. Build mentoring rings between non-diverse leaders and diverse talent.
  • Start hiring minorities in key leadership positions. What a lot of companies don't realize is that it's harder to recruit minorities into your company when you have a lack diversity on your leadership team. Having someone that looks like you in a leadership position gives you hope that you can aspire to the same thing.
  • Continue your diversity recruiting efforts and partnerships with diverse organizations

If you enjoyed the post, please click the thumbs up icon and let me know!

Thoughts and feedback, please comment below.

Follow me on Twitter at @chrisbrecruits

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of my employer.

Views: 480

Comment by Matt Charney on October 14, 2014 at 8:04am

As a white male, I still wonder why I can still be statistically in the minority but not a diversity candidate. Nice write up from someone who actually gets it - appreciate your perspective.

Comment by Chris Bell on October 14, 2014 at 12:45pm
Thanks Matt. It's true, you may be considered a minority statistically but in the corporate environment the majority. Hard post to write but so many people candy coat shit around diversity. Diversity fails because of implicit bias, not to mention the lack of qualified diverse talent.


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