The problem with “diversity and inclusion” roles

September 8, 2015

The world’s largest tech companies continue to produce dismal results as they try to diversify their ranks–particularly representation of blacks, latinos and indigenous people. This has prompted a new wave of companies bringing on board “diversity and inclusion” officers to tackle this problem, most recently AirBNB and Dropbox.

These roles look like good faith efforts and practical investments by seemingly well-intentioned companies who want to face this issue head on. It makes sense to install someone who is responsible for delivering results.

However, taking a look at Facebook, which has had a Global Head of Diversity since 2013, shows virtually no movement of the needle. Their head count of black employees has increased by 7, while they’ve shown an increase of 695 white employees in the same period. Google, who’s had a diversity program manager since 2011, has shown no significant progress.

This is not an indictment of those currently occupying diversity and inclusion roles. Anyone charged with catalyzing significant change within a culture that is often characterized as less than welcoming has an enormous task at hand.  And, while not completely resigning to the idea that this is a “pipeline” problem, sourcing candidates is a factor.  

This is a nut many companies are trying to crack with less than stellar results. The idea isn’t that we should be at parity but that we should at least see some semblance of progress.

Which leads to a larger question: why, in such a metric driven product building industry, does the approach to diversity initiatives look so different from how products are made–how problems are solved

The technology industry solves problems in ways other industries aren’t capable of. It seems reasonable that companies would use the same methodologies responsible for the success of their products and apply them to their cultures, especially considering the serious business implications of a company’s workforce.

Where are the metrics?

Apple, Google and Facebook release reports narrating their stalled results from prior years about their continuously homogenous workforce. Yet there seems to be no particular goal in mind consequently reducing  diversity to an unknown fate.

Most recently, Pinterest and Twitter were lauded for the “radical” step of creating tangible metrics and releasing the data publicly, creating a new level of accountability and a way for a company to assess itself more objectively.

I know there is push back around creating these sort of goals, which are often pejoratively called “quotas”. There exists a prevailing attitude that being explicit about the type of person a company wants to hire will lead companies to select people who are underqualified in order to satisfy a metric or tick a checkbox. But, like any other product or problem you’re trying to hack, there should be some cursory idea of what success looks like, and a product oriented, metrics-driven approach dictates the necessary process.

HR vs Design

Rethinking the idea that diversity and inclusion should fall solely under the domain of human resources should be the first step in shifting to a product-oriented approach. It seems logical that a people problem would live with HR, but product people–engineers and especially designers—have the skillsets that already solve some of the largest and most complex problems within a company.

Those skillsets and methodologies are not only applicable to building digital tools and experiences. Design is no longer just a tool to make products look appealing. Design has grown up and is increasingly being employed to tackle large strategic problems at the highest levels of business with a bias towards action and empathy.

This is not to marginalize the role of competent human resource professionals in hacking this problem, but a call to look inward at what seems like a painfully obvious approach and the use of existing.powerful tools to shift thinking.

Call to action

A product-oriented approach normalizes the diversity conversation while leveraging a company’s existing problem solving resources. The result would be designers actively speaking about their work dedicated to diversity and empowered by their companies to use their skillset in the same way we hear designers talk about their work on products.

We would begin seeing job descriptions for inclusion roles that aren’t entirely HR-centric, and even designers or engineers filling these roles supported by cross functional teams and given adequate resources and space to actively design solutions.

Until companies begin to prioritize diversity with the same rigor as their products and specifically hire people with the ability to carry out that mission, we will continue to see nominal results that affect consumer perception and ultimately the bottom line.

Thank you to the following humans for reading drafts of this: @_danilo, @aminatou , @anildash , @sean_a_rose@beLaurie