The diversity echo chamber


I was not planning to comment on James Damore’s Idealogical Echo Chamber “paper” because everything that needs to be said has already been said 150000000 times by people a lot more accomplished and articulate than me.

Until Google fired James Damore. While it is legally within Google’s rights as an at-will employer to do this, I find this persecution to be dangerous. Growing up in a country where people mysteriously disappear or get slaughtered in public for voicing an unpopular perspective, I suppose I’m sensitive to this very precious right we enjoy in the US. If I were the VP of diversity at Google, my call to action would be to make James Damore a member of my team (if he was willing) and employ that sharp albeit narrow mind to understand and solve the range of discriminatory problems that plague our industry, and our society, including racial, gender, political, religious and non watchers of Silicon Valley (we are an endangered species).

Am I offended that he labelled my kind as biologically less fit for the industry I have built my career? Of course!

Do I want to point out all the logical fallacies and lack of facts and data in his arguments? Of course I do.

Will any of this convince James or the tens of thousands of dudes out there who actually feel exactly the same way? Of course not.

I appreciate the honesty that James exhibited in his beliefs. I wish more engineers, more VCs, more exec teams, more HR leaders, more CEOs would have the courage to look their biases in the eye and claim them. I suspect James doesn’t have a whole lot of real contribution to the dismal diversity statistics at Google, and Facebook, and Amazon, and Microsoft and the rest of them. Yet he’s the one whose firing we cheer! I’ve interviewed at each of these companies, been offered roles by each of them, and every role has been below my capability, my prior experience, my value. I’ve seen my peers and guys much more junior than me get significantly better deals at the same companies. James wasn’t the one the one that did that. He just got to be the poster boy for our collective rage. What he says is an accurate description of how people make decisions. The thing that sets me apart in interviews, in meetings every single day is the “biological” differences between us – the boobs, the lack of a bulge of leadership between my legs. And perhaps something innate about my personality that’s defined by my X chromosome?

I am in violent agreement with James – men and women are different. We look different and we feel different and there’s a strong biological component to both. However where we diverge is that James may not realize that purely from a scientific standpoint, the complex relationship between identity and genetic makeup is not fully understood.

Penis –> Y chromosome – CHECK.

Leadership —> Y chromosome – SCIENTIFICALLY UNKNOWN.

Less than 100 years ago, women were considered unfit to vote in this country. Their frail and fickle minds, lack of worldliness and frivolity meant they were unable to understand or effectively make the choice of who should lead the nation. Less than 100 years ago, fewer than 10% of gynecologists and pediatricians in the US were women. And now more than 50% are women in both categories. Less than 100 years ago, populations of gypsies and Jews were poked, weighed, starved, measured, gutted because of a pre-supposition that their biological differences made them unfit for European society and unfit for the master race.

At the end of the day, it’s not our minds that protect us from the logical and heinous conclusions of eugenics and discrimination. It’s our hearts and the compassion and empathy they hold within them. The very empathy James took a shit on. The very empathy I see missing in what has happened since his paper came out.

Being smart is easy.

Writing papers is easy.

Firing people is easy.

All logical. All simple. All boring. And entirely wrong.

Being in touch with our feelings and those of others around us, and letting them be our guide in decisions – that’s FUCKING hard.

Not having a black and white resolution like they do in the movies – that’s FUCKING hard.

If James had allowed empathy into his heart, his perspective would be richer & deeper. He’d understand that this conversation isn’t just about “good for business”. It’s about our moral center.

If you allow empathy in your heart, you may also see that this conversation is not about James Damore. It’s about a truth that pre-dates him and will live on long after he’s forgotten from news feeds. Someone’s freedom of speech was curtailed, someone was made a poster child for a problem that is infinitely more pervasive.

Diversity is a place of perpetual discomfort, curiosity and acceptance. Do you think you live there?



Forget about Satya, what about you?

Dust settles (as it always does), the PR horror-show of Satya Nadella’s faux pas retreats into the shadows and we focus our attention to flavor of the week – Tim Cook’s homosexuality. We tore down a CEO 3 weeks ago, now we lift one up. In all of this, I can’t help but turn around and reflect on us, the audience that votes with its feet and in doing so creates and destroys personas within minutes.

Demonize, Externalize, Move On

What Satya said was silly, but not any sillier than half the shit any of us says on any given day. He took responsibility for it the next day in a public apology. But we can’t find empathy in our hearts to understand, forgive and let it go. Instead, we demonize and get more holier-than-thou by the minute. I have to believe that this mindset serves a purpose. If we make Satya the face of the problem and crucify him for it, it gives us a false sense of “making it right”. Focusing on him externalizes the problem of diversity and absolves us of our role in the cluster-fuck we find ourselves in.

Could Satya have stuck to the script and lied through his teeth about career advice to women? Sure. C-levels do that every day. They’re very good at it. He’d get minor positive press for attending the Grace Hopper’s conference and supporting women. And the story would have a white-washed but quaint little happy end. One more largely inconsequential talk in the sea of inconsequential talks. But I’m really glad he spoke his mind. His words merely echo what I’ve heard from countless managers over the years, and if I’m being totally honest, I’ve heard the same message in my own voice to my reports (and not just to women).

“Do good work, and the right thing will happen”

By itself, this is not a horrible thing to say. Don’t we all want to be in a work environment where people get rewarded for their work without having to elbow their way to it? It’s only when it’s put in the context of a fundamentally biased system that this becomes an awful statement. But then is the issue with the statement or the context that taints it? And if it is the context, aren’t we a part of it and therefore shouldn’t we take responsibility just as Satya did in his apology?

Taking Responsibility
My mom loved telling us stories that were laden with purpose/morals. And so now you must suffer just as I did.
The king of a land far, far away was asked by his people to create a stream of milk and honey for them. They wanted this stream to reflect their prosperity as a nation. The king agreed and devised a great plan to tie their desires to their effort and got a stream dug up that very night. He then told every subject in his kingdom to pour a bucket of milk and honey in the stream during the night and promised that the people of the kingdom would have what they wanted by the next dawn. Every person thought about it and came the conclusion that other people would do the right thing and therefore they could just put in a bucket of water. No one would notice one bucket of water in a stream of milk and honey. Not surprisingly, the next morning the town woke to a stream of water. And they got exactly what they deserved and what they were willing to put into it.

Diversity is the stream of milk and honey that eludes us. It’s the ideal we all claim we want, yet none of us are willing to do much about. We are quick to accuse others instead of reflecting on our own behavior. We pour in water and get mad at others when they do the same.

Start from the assumption that you are the problem. Period. No ifs, no buts.
Look around you. Do you see a diverse group of people? If not, don’t assume it’s a coincidence that you just find yourself in the middle of. If you’re a manager and all your reports are men or all are women, all your reports are white etc., take a hard look at your behavior and assume you MUST be doing something wrong to be in this situation. What can you do differently starting today?

Diversity is not an accident. Neither is lack of diversity. It’s purposeful in both directions. Apply your energy actively to moving the needle in your microcosm. That’s how change happens.

Diversity – what’s all the fuss about?

Diversity is like motherhood and apple pie. Everyone loves it, everyone claims to want it. Its been talked to death (in books, talk-shows, leadership training etc). It might even be in the official word list of buzzword bingo. Diversity’s moral absolutism demands that corporate America white-wash its brand by adding the token black guy and Asian woman to its products and it’s workforce. Don’t get me wrong. As a female Asian consumer (yes people, Asia includes South Asia and the Middle East), I love seeing commercials with people that look like me. As a working professional, I love that I can apply to and not get rejected for a job based on my color or ethnicity.

However the dialog on Diversity remains as shallow and uninspired as it’s very rudimentary definition. Diversity is ultimately about heterogeneity of thought, feeling and experience and not just about a statistic on minority % in a work-force. While that is essential, it only scratches the surface of what’s required for a truly Diverse environment.

I’m a Diversity statistic who’s rarely experienced Diversity
Recently, at a dinner with some coworkers, one of them said “What’s all the fuss about – you succeeded as a woman! Doesn’t that prove that we are Diverse” – completely valid statement, and one that started this chain of thought for me.
I’ve spent 13 years working in an environment that’s predominantly male and white – and not only survived but thrived. From the outside looking in, not being a white guy hasn’t held me back. The inside out view is different. Along the way, I’ve chosen to mute parts of myself that are less amenable to my environment and dialed up parts of myself that are more amenable. I’ll just rattle off some changes I’ve had to make to fit in and be successful:

  • More aggression, less sensitivity to my own emotional needs as well as others
  • More succinctness, less adjective oriented and emotive language
  • More firmness (commands & statements like “We must”, “We need to”), less qualifiers (like “I think”)
  • Over-use of cold logic in conflict situations than emotional connection
  • More specific, less abstract
  • More decisive and get-shit-done, less creative and exploratory
  • More interest in nerdy stuff (from comics to gadgets to super-hero movies to reading specific blogs to using the latest services/apps to be considered one-of-the-group)

It’s worked brilliantly for my career and yet I’m left exhausted! It’s a lot of work to be someone else and at some point, success stops being worth the cost of pretending. Sadly, on the scale of how much other minorities around me morph to fit in, I represent the lowest degree because I’ve chosen to morph my exterior but stay true to my mind. They’ve allowed the assimilation to run much deeper, and that’s where identity fractures appear.
The point of this saga is that even though I’m contributing positively to a Diversity statistic on some pretty chart, I do not consider my experience (nor do I consider many others’ experience) to be one where heterogeneity was encouraged. At the same time, I have not encountered a single malicious or explicitly anti-Diversity person in my professional life. Not one.

In my experience lack of Diversity does not stem from mal-intent but rather a lack of appropriate focus on the things that unintentionally create a hostile work environment.

Why Diversity alludes us

Imagine that you’re the CEO of a company. You have a strong vision for what success looks like and know how to realize it fast (assuming general wisdom that fast is good, slow is bad). When you build your team, are you more likely or less likely to hire like-minded people who can get the company to the finish line with the least amount of friction? I’m thinking more likely. And that would make your approach similar to how hiring generally happens. Most companies profile for “fit” as a part of the recruitment process. It makes perfect sense.

Now imagine that you’re a white-collar professional who leads a responsible and busy life and has limited (and therefore precious) time for hobbies and friendships. Are you more or less likely to spend that time with people (doing things) that share most aspects of your lifestyle (e.g. age, socio-economic layer, profession, life-stage, values, morality, interests)? I’m thinking more likely.

Answer this question to help me get a pulse on this issue

I believe that both examples above represent a perspective that’s not conducive to Diversity and also illustrate why it’s is so damn hard to create. Diversity is a destination that’s always out of the way of where we are headed in our professional and personal lives. It requires energy we don’t have, for gains that are theoretical at best. The biggest contributors to a homogeneous environment are inertia and familiarity-bias.

Another factor to consider is Who we focus on when we talk about Diversity. Many companies make the Diversity conversation about the need for a larger pool of candidates that represent minorities. Great! Let’s do that. But what happens when they actually join the work-force? They’ll still be a minority and therefore subject to the cultural tone set by the majority. Their choices will be to assimilate, shut down or leave. That’s why the focus has to be turned 180 degrees around to the over-represented groups and the patterns of behavior they exhibit that crowd others out. Any majority will do that (so this isn’t about who’s in the majority). The Kryptonite-to-Diversity behaviors I refer to are:

  • Negative bias for things/styles that are unfamiliar
  • Singular need for speed (get it done, and get it done FAST). As a culture, we worship speed at the cost of wisdom, enrichment and deep insight.
  • Deeply ingrained belief that difference of opinion is a bad thing (i.e. either causes emotional stress or hurts efficiency) and lack of interpersonal skills to resolve disagreement (which is a natural and desired outcome of a group with Diversity of thought i.e. the opposite of group-think).
  • Strong desire for control and safety (Diversity makes our world bigger, challenges our boundaries and beliefs, and that’s naturally very scary)
  • Lack of curiosity about the Other
  • Lack of patience to let things we don’t understand unfold and reveal themselves in entirety. This leads to preemptive judgement without adequate data.
  • Color blindness (unfortunately political correctness is often interpreted to mean we’re all “equal” and therefore “the same”. Equality can and does exist without sameness but that’s lost on a lot of people because they’re scared of offending – refer to my earlier comment about the moral absolutism and religious zeal around Diversity)
  • Lack of personal experience of Diversity enriching one’s life. This translates to a fundamental lack of desire to work towards Diversity.

My Diversity Manifesto

This brings me to my manifesto for Diversity. First and foremost, each one of us represents “majority” in some circle or another. So what I’m asking for applies to every person (and not just white men :)).

  • At least once a day, take one action you do really fast and try doing it at half the speed (if you walk fast, try walking slower, if you type fast, type slower) – sounds silly but great at building patience
  • Make a mental note of how much time you spend talking versus listening in a conversation. Try to reverse your natural disposition every alternate day. Not only will you find yourself listening (if you’re an innate talker) and expressing more (if you’re an innate listener), you’ll also start seeing how different the same conversation can be from these two vantage points.
  • Try engaging with a community or in an activity that you find yourself judging negatively
  • Make a friend that does not represent your socio-economic band. If you’re single, hang out with parents. If you’re young, hang out with someone older. If you’re super-successful, hang out with someone who’s struggling.
  • Educate yourself about distinct ways in which people make sense of the world. I recommend Insights and Myers Briggs as a starting point. You’ll realize that half the people you’ve been calling stupid or incompetent this entire time are not that but just different from you in how they process information. Then actively look out for people that represent different thought processes and find opportunities to work with them. It’ll stretch you like nothing else.
  • Focus on emotional awareness about your own inner state – ask yourself how you feel several times during the day (don’t over-think it: all emotions boil down to: Sad, Glad, Mad, Scared).
  • Focus on emotional states of others – once you begin to recognize this within yourself, you become better at recognizing emotion in others as well. Find a confidante at work who can be a mirror and help
  • Try playing devil’s advocate in conversations – putting yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t agree with the majority will help build enduring empathy

Everything I’ve just said essentially aims to build Diversity of experience within ourselves. The world outside is a reflection of the world within. This is an empowering place to be and also a tremendous responsibility. So do your part. Become Diverse. Only then can you demand it of your world.