Reimaging Diversity Initiatives in the Wake of the Anti-Diversity Screed

The many reactions, thoughtful op-eds, and often times angry commentary have been pouring in ever since the controversial Anti-Diversity memo from a now ex-Googler leaked into the mainstream last weekend and caused an uproar within the tech community.

As a woman who has worked in Silicon Valley and experienced gender bias, I’m the first to say that we need to invest in diversity.

And I understand why people immediately jump to the kinds of knee-jerk reactions we’ve seen, especially given the wrong and negative portrayal of female stereotypes in the Screed. But here’s the hard truth - you can blame, point fingers and even fire every offender you want, but that’s not a sustainable strategy to building inclusive cultures. We owe it to ourselves to answer the $60,000 question: Why aren’t our well-intentioned diversity and inclusion programs moving the needle in any tangible way and worse, creating a backlash?

If our goal is to increase women in STEM education, attract and retain more women in those fields, and move them through the pipeline into leadership positions, then we need to look at this issue from a deeper perspective.

1.  Invite men to engage as allies: It starts with inviting men into the conversation, not blaming and shaming them just because they are a product of a system not designed to value the strengths of women. Engaging men as allies and encouraging them to partner with women needs to be part of the solution, instead of blaming them as part of the problem. Up till now, diversity initiatives have traditionally been silo'd - with Resource Groups categorized by minority group - LGBT, African-American, Asian-American, Women etc. Not only does that separate the various minority groups which prevents any type of cohesive diversity strategy, it sends the message to the broader culture that these people are different and they need special attention. When it comes to women, most women's initiatives have been presented as a "women's issue" that women need to figure out through more skills training, mentorship etc. It has traditionally NOT included men, who by the way still hold 86% of leadership positions in Fortune 500's. Would you develop a product excluding 86% of the consumer demographic you were catering to?

The backlash we are seeing from white, straight males whether it's the Anti-Diversity Screed or the men and boys who participated in the riots of Charlottesville exactly one week later, is not happening in a bubble. We need to listen to what they are saying. We need to really hear what they are asking for - even if we think WTF! What do YOU have to complain about?! They are begging to be included, to be respected, to be taken into consideration.  And that is exactly what we should be doing.

2. Redesign the workplace:  Here’s another hard truth – the workplace was never designed for women. It was designed for men; to play to their strengths and their way of operating in the world. Same goes for leadership and how organizations have been traditionally structured – hierarchical, command/control environments designed for maximum output. In the 20th century, when many of the jobs were in manufacturing or factory type jobs, this top-down model worked really well and made a lot of sense. But as we have moved into the 21st century where output and competitiveness are measured by innovation and new ideas, we see that those outdated models no longer apply.

At the same time, women entered the workforce and empowered themselves through their careers. But even though they gained a seat at the table, nothing else around them changed all that much.

Everything from how people are hired, the way companies are structured, how jobs are evaluated, these are all predominately still based on male characteristics that will always play to the advantage of men over women.

Downplaying the biological differences that exist between men and women and pretending that men and women are designed exactly the same and therefore should be treated equally is a big part of the problem and a common response I’ve seen online. Ever since the feminist revolution of the sixties women have been trying to prove this and as a feminist I can understand why. It was something we needed to do to get to where we are today. But fast forward fifty years and we’re still fighting that fight, so maybe it’s time for another approach.

Latest neuroscience research shows us that men and women are wired differently and bring complimentary strengths to the table, which is not actually a bad thing – nature probably intended it that way so we could collaborate with each other for basic survival. When we translate that into the workplace we can see how that could benefit both parties as well – each gender playing to their strengths, being evaluated for their performance accordingly, and working together toward a shared goal. These studies do not show a difference in mental aptitude or intelligence.

But forcing women to think like men, behave like men, or compete like men puts them in a proven double bind that is not only exhausting to navigate, but counterproductive. One of my favorite articles in response to the memo is from a former senior engineer who argues that the strengths women bring are exactly the strengths that make great engineers. Things like understanding customers, working cross-collaboratively and good emotional skills are skills shown to drive organizational performance and are the stuff that make up great leaders.

3. Evaluate job performance on non-traditional competencies: The competencies used to evaluate job performance have traditionally been linked to male competencies, so being perceived different than men immediately puts women at a disadvantage. Competencies like assertiveness, risk-taking, quick decision-making play to male strengths. Feminine qualities like empathy, relationship building, collaboration, or long-term thinking haven’t really been at the top of the list when it comes to evaluating performance. Instead,  those with the loudest voice in the room, who aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind, even talk over people, interrupt and generally act "alpha" are seen as leader-like or promotion material. Those people get ahead and over time the unconscious message to women is:  Show up like men or don't show up at all.

Now I’m not saying that all men possess only one set of characteristics, or all women possess another. There are always shades of grey, behaviors can be learned and adapted and there are always exceptions to the rule. But because women are more often associated with communal traits like nurture, care and motherhood and men with leadership traits, you get a lose-lose situation for women: women have to work harder but are given less credit for their accomplishments, feel as if they have to prove their value, are criticized more harshly for perceived mistakes, and have to deal with maternal bias that says women can’t be good mothers and good performers. Being able to navigate subtle forms of gender bias (which women hold against other women as well by the way), is a huge feat. Women in leadership positions are usually there because of great sacrifices they’ve had to make along the way to get there, including leaving their strengths at home.

Until we begin to value the distinct strengths that women bring to the table, and demand that our workforce value those qualities starting from the hiring process all the way to the promotional process, women will continue to face these unconscious biases. You cannot train bias out of people, and in fact it can actually backfire and make the problem worse. But building an inclusive workforce is much more than that – it’s about honoring the differences that exist between all types of people, and making sure we’re leveraging their potential.

Redefining success and leadership to include women’s strengths is the first step to creating gender-balanced organizations.