In addition to all of the traditional reasons for supporting diversity, I propose a new reason: that diverse teams will support each other better, resulting in a higher-quality work environment for everyone. The percentage of women in tech is currently unsustainably low, yet if we can raise that percentage and build a culture of welcoming all differences, we can build our differences into a strength.
Why care about diversity?
There are three commonly-cited reasons for why we should care about diversity:
- Fairness: Women deserve these high-paying engineering jobs as much as men do. Minorities deserve them as much as majorities do. If our engineering population is similar to our overall population, everyone is getting their “fair share” of the good jobs.
- Simple numerics : Male caucasians will be the minority in the 21st century, and so to meet the need for engineers we will have to attract women and underrepresented minorities.
- Quality of decision-making: Teams with diverse backgrounds compensate for each other’s faults and augment each other’s strengths. Teams that represent more customers will better understand those customers and build products that meet their needs. This was said very well by Bill Wulf , “As in any creative profession, what comes out is a function of the life experiences of the people who do it. Finally, sans diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost—a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented…”
I believe in the importance of all 3. But there is a fourth that I know women discuss, but I’m not sure it has been elevated to the same air-time as the previous 3.
- Quality of work environment: Teams with diverse backgrounds have a broader ability to support each other.
Here is one of the selfish (but reasonable) reasons so many women in tech worry about diversity: Women in tech are goddamn lonely. Tech careers are not like 9-to-5 jobs. You devote a significant portion of your time and energy to your career. While you might go home to your social life or your family, you also need your work team to be part of your social outlet.
Let’s do a little thought experiment by flipping the numbers. You’re a young man in tech, just a few years out of school. Your team is 82% women and only 18% men. You are surrounded by women. They are all friendly, but a lot of them care about different things than you. When you go to lunch, you’re not interested in discussing the fashion scene, and you care nothing about that TV show they always want to discuss. You also feel vaguely like your career is impacted because you’re not joining in that knitting group with some of the senior women.
Sure, I’m stereotyping. But many women feel this level of alienation with their team. And things get even worse when women are a bit older, and struggling with difficult issues like fitting maternity leave into their career, or breastfeeding their newborn baby. Sometimes you need to talk to someone who has been through it. There are physical as well as social differences in being a mother vs. a father. (E.g. We lay a lot of mom-guilt onto women even while we expect them to maintain perfection in their careers.)
I believe that at our current level of computer science degree production — 18% female — we are below a sustainable level of female involvement. By which I mean, we are losing women simply because there are not enough other women. Women choose not to enter our field, they have a hard time staying in, and a hard time succeeding; all due in part to being so far off balance. This is even ignoring the fact that women seem to gravitate toward certain parts of our profession. At Microsoft, women represent a higher percentage of our program management role than our engineering role. And when you get down into low-level systems, kernel and device driver development, the percentages are positively dismal. Even when the overall stats don’t sound that bad, working in some parts of the software industry is a lonely experience for women.
The power of connection
We all have a basic need to connect with others. We find these connections in many different places: perhaps we went to the same school, or grew up in the same city, or play the same sports, or cheer for the same teams. We use these connections to build our relationships with others. It’s not really logical: I should be able to relate to you just as well whether we have anything in common or not. But it’s part of being human. We all want to be individuals, but at the same we also have a need to be similar in some way.
It is pretty much impossible to work with a team of people and have zero connections with those people. Even as the most under-represented minority, we’re going to have something in common with someone. The more connected you feel, though, the more confident you feel in those relationships. We also gain confidence in ourselves by feeling connected to role models. If you have a large number of connections and a large number of role models, you’re automatically set up to feel confident. The fewer of these you have, the more you need to be able to stand alone.
I will say more about under-represented minorities in a moment, but I do think that our gender-identity is a huge part of our overall identity. Socially, we feel more comfortable with those who share our gender identity. We feel more safe and more supported. When we are missing that comfort, we can still function, but it can be more tiring.
Men in female-dominated fields must feel something similar. Teachers, housekeepers, nurses and administrative assistants are all predominantly women. I’ve stated that careers in tech are different; some of these other careers involve more interaction with clients than co-workers, which might aid with the social outlet. However I would still imagine that the problem exists for some of these men. Male teachers of young children especially feel alienated. (My theory being that older children are easier to socialize with while young children provide very little social outlet.) Anyway, I imagine these men would be happier with more balance in these professions, and our world would probably be a better place if we had more balance in these professions as well.
As a partial mitigation, we build women’s communities. We set up mentors and mentoring rings. We come together socially and professionally, to support each other, to network, and to provide that social outlet. But it is only a partial mitigation. First off, there are a nonzero number of women who rebel against these communities; they don’t want special treatment because they are women. There are also a lot of introverts among us in the tech community, who do not relish getting together socially or with no particular agenda. These people still need a social outlet, but they want it to happen naturally during their workday. Artificial replacements don’t work as well as the real thing. There is nothing like true gender balance to support both women and men.
Lastly, I don’t want to leave out under-represented minorities in all of this. Our gender identity is a big part of our experience, but it isn’t the only way we connect with others. I imagine that safety and comfort are also easier to find in the presence of a shared racial background, shared nationality, shared language. (This also helps explain why women of color find their experience most difficult of all.)
Turning differences into connections
One ray of hope I see: our industry has a lot of immigrants, which is a good thing! While I imagine as a result we have many different reasons people might feel less connected with each other, this also gives me hope not only that we’re well on the way to other kinds of diversity, but that we have a really large number of people who understand what it feels like to be on the outside. If we can turn that into a culture of supporting each other, of welcoming everyone, then we really can win: everyone will feel connected, even as we celebrate our differences.
I’ve been thinking on how to do this. How do we build this supportive culture? The best answer I’ve come up with, so far, is to be as open as possible about your discomforts. Maybe you miss your language, or familiar things about your homeland. Maybe you miss having people who are interested in similar topics. Maybe you feel uncertain in your ability to speak English, or in your lack of knowledge of American popular culture. In a supposed meritocracy, this kind of vulnerability-sharing is not easy. But speaking with your teammates about what you find missing in your team culture not only helps them feel a bond with you based on a shared experience, but also lets them possibly help you with it, or make their behavior more inclusive. And as you become more senior and get past these things, speaking about your experiences with the junior engineers who look up to you will build bonds with them, and strengthen them.
I welcome your thoughts on how to build a culture of supporting and celebrating our differences, of feeling them as strengths instead of weaknesses. Truly, this is the actual goal of diversity & inclusion efforts.
In closing, I reiterate my goal: the engineers of tomorrow should represent the population of tomorrow. For the benefit of our population, but also for the benefit of our engineers.
 W.A. Wulf, “Diversity in Engineering,” The Bridge, vol. 28, no. 4, Winter 1998; www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/CompetitiveMaterialsandSolutions/DiversityinEngineering.aspx.