Diversity is NOT a progressive value.
Its a rational one.

A few years back, I was a product manager of a team that has grown too large for remaining sustainably agile. I was trying to break that team into two independent teams (in the same company), each with its own product manager. At the time, the two candidates where the senior android developer of the team (a guy) and the system owner / tech lead of the team (a woman). The guy was not particularly well-experienced in product management, but he had a good eye for UX and he deserved a chance. The female co-worker, on the other hand, was the effective product manager of the team already. She was doing most of what I needed to do, while I was busy restructuring the team (and also forming a new separate team that I later moved to).

I had to introduce the new product managers with the VP and the CEO of the company, and get their confirmation. To my surprise, the guy, despite being the experimental choice, was confirmed with ZERO questions. The confirmation process for the woman, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as smooth. Despite re-iterating that she is effectively doing that job already, and as you can see she is pretty good at it, more than once, I had to prove that she is capable of the task at hand. The doubt, I was told, was rooted in the fact that she was going to be the first female product manager of a tech-heavy company. I still do not understand why it mattered.

In the end, both candidates got confirmed. The total discussion time didn't exceed an hour (and I had separate discussions with the VP and the CEO on the matter). The guy did a relatively fine job leading the product team assigned to him, but in 6 months switched back as he didn't like what being a product manager entailed. The female co-worker, on the other hand, is still one of the strongest product managers of the company after five years.

To give you more context, this wasn't a super large, bureaucracy-infested company ran by a bunch of suites. At the time we were about 80 people (if I'm not mistaken), of all young, energetic people. Most of us were students (including me and the VP at the time), and the whole company culture was based on ensuring an open-minded and inclusive environment for all. Despite the initial bias, the rational decision was made in the end, which proved exceedingly beneficial for the company.

But as we all know, this nice story of some mild gender-bias being brushed off with relative ease is not the norm. It is, still in 2020, the exception. There are still huge gender gaps in IT jobs in general, which get much more pronounced if you zoom on leadership roles. You can switch gender with ethnicity, and you get similar results. Focus on a wemon of color, for example, and then the gap is just disastrously huge.

This is a huge problem, and our main approach towards it have been a humanatirian one, based on morality and equality. We see this as a signal that the playing field is not level for all individuals, and systemaitc biases tilt it in favor of one particular group over others. We have approached diversity as a progressive issue, as something we need to push evil companies to accept despite its potential financial damages to them.

And that is not the wrong angle. Of course this is an equality issue, and of course this requires civic engagement and public pressure even if it was detrimental to financial gains of companies. The problem is, that it is not.

Pushing this through a progressive lens was not without its side effects. When the main driver for diversity is public pressure, the main response from companies is via their public relations. People want to see that companies are getting more diverse, so thats what companies want people to see as well, even if in reality they are not getting more diverse. This has lead to diversity hires, an extremely awkward situation where someone cannot be sure whether they have got a position due to their skills or due to their differences. This has fueled backlashes in form of prioritizing diversity over ability, which have became a lucrative trap through which anti-diversity voices have been successful at attracting people who you would deem pretty progressive otherwise.

The thing is though, that diversity really is not a progressive value. It is not about being a nice human being who favors equality for all over financial gains. It is, quite simply, just a rational decision.

Look at it this way: your programming skills aren't really affected by gender / ethnicity / sexual preference / gender identity. It would be really outlandish if it in fact was. This simply means if you are enforcing a bias in how you hire / promote people, you are costing the company money because you are unable to overcome your irrational biases towards others. By being blind-sided to your prejudice, or worse, by giving in to it and pseudo-rationalizing for yourself, you are not being anti progressive or pragmatic or fiscally realistic or whatever nice label you want to put on it. You are damaging your company/team, financially damaging them. You are just being irrational.

And I am not saying that we should only select people by skill here. Years of systemic bias that has driven minorities out of tech jobs also has resulted in them being less available for these jobs, so you cannot just throw your hands up and say "We were cheating until now, but lets forget that and play an equal game from now on.". That simply doesn't work.

What I am saying is, that it is obviously the rational thing for any company (and by extension industry) to be able to tap into the full-potential of the available human resources, instead of being limited to select groups which are singled out due to pragmatically irrelevant reasons. This doesn't need companies to pretend that they care about humanitarian values where they are not (no company is), it just needs people who make decisions for those companies to realize when they are allowing irrational biases damage the productivity of their companies, and by extension, the whole industry. You don't need to be progressive to actively promote diversity. You just need to not be short-sighted.

Hero image by Sharon McCutcheon from Unsplash


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