Tech’s Troubling New Trend: Diversity Is in Your Head

Bari A. Williams, New York Times, October 16, 2017

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 furor erupted, Ms. 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 color, 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 Ms. 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.

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