A counterintuitive way to increase diversity in tech
You want to increase diversity in tech. You’re a person of privilege, probably white, passably male, perhaps even well-heeled. You already know the benefits of having a diverse and inclusive team: many kinds of eyes make for more insights and fewer surprises. It pains you to hear the sad stories of your underepresented peers. You want to help but don’t know how.
Does this sound like you? Great, you’re an awesome human being, and I’m glad you’re here!
But before you go running off to donate your time and money to bringing more folks-not-just-like-you into junior roles in tech, hear me out.
I’m mid-career in the web development and design industry. And right now, I’m hearing a lot of the same stories from my fellow mid-career friends from underrepresented groups (women, minorities, LGBTQ, and more): you reach a certain point in your career and you can’t win.
I also hear from plenty of well-meaning, privileged colleagues who would love to see the situation improve, more women in management, more raises for people of color, more momentum across the board. But most of these folks are individual contributors, not managers or directors—not in a position to mentor people into senior roles or sponsor them for promotions. In short, while their heart is in the right place, they are in no position to do anything substantial to change the status quo. And this presents a problem.
No matter how many people from underrepresented groups we train for entry level positions, it means doodle squat if they don’t have upward mobility or can’t get hired due to bias.
Here’re some the hurdles facing many people from underrepresented groups embarking on their glorious career path:
- They aren’t promoted and hired into senior roles to advance their career.
- They are underemployed or under-utilized in their current role.
- There is no one like them up the management chain they can learn from and aspire to be.
- They lack mentorship to gain the skills necessary to excel at all of the above.
- They lack sponsorship to make sure their ideas are heard and valued sans bias.
- They face downward pressure from a disinterested management that “doesn’t see color” or “only hires/promotes the best.”
It is very difficult if not impossible for someone of good character and sound mind to succeed in the longterm and realize their full potential facing these challenges, no matter how much they excel on their own terms.
Ok, so what CAN you do to help improve diversity in tech?
Glad you asked! It’s simple: get into management.
I know, it seems counterintuitive. How does an already privileged person moving into management change anything? Don’t we want less of that? Well, that all depends on what you do from that position.
You can make diversity a company goal, point out other managers’ biases as a peer, create an inviting team where people can do their best work and launch successful careers from said experience. You can back employees when they have complaints. And you can leverage your position.
Management isn’t about a bigger salary or being “the boss.”
Being a manager is more like being a shepherd. A good manager is a force multiplier who brings out the best in their team. They help make important decisions and guide and advise their employees. But in the end, it’s not about them. It’s about their team. A good manager succeeds or fails by their team’s performance.
Put yourself in a position to hire people onto a team. Tie your career to their success and then invest your energy in helping them succeed.
But what if…
Sometimes I meet great people who want to create a diverse workplace, but they’re in structures that hinder diversity more than help. Maybe management isn’t open to being challenged on established dark patterns. Perhaps there’s an “old boys club” attitude that it’s career suicide to break from. Maybe you stand up for people and get shot down. Maybe you, yourself, do not feel safe or nurtured here.
I ask of these good albeit frustrated people: is this your “best life?” How are you realizing your full potential here? How many people aren’t living up to their’s because you aren’t?
If where you are isn’t letting you help the people you want to succeed, go find a place where you can help them in and up, where you can have meaningful impact and build better things for it.
And let the organization know in no uncertain terms that that is why you’re making that decision. You’re in a position to be heard, to be missed, to be lost. That’s a stronger position than everyone else waiting at the bottom of the ladder.
It’s not about you: it’s about what you can do for others.
In the USA, we like to complain a lot. We complained during the last presidential election. And we’re still complaining now. Complaining that all politicians, managers, and other figures of authority are biased won’t change their policies. The status quo loves complainers because they never do anything. They’re complainers, not do-ers. Complainers change nothing.
Are you an ally? Are you a do-er? A change maker? Then you march in protests, you write letters to your representatives, you run for office.
You get into leadership, and you part the waters.
Folks with privilege have the luxury of sitting back and enjoying a low-stakes life of individual contributorship, of choosing not to climb; coming in, doing your job, going home, training someone up and hoping they succeed on their own merits. But for that trainee, this system doesn’t work the way it does for you. They need mentors in senior roles, sponsors in management, advocates up and down their career path, not just at the entry level.
If you really want to change this system, it’s time to start thinking bigger. It’s time to get up and go outside your comfort zone.
Stop complaining and feeling powerless. Start thinking about your career in terms larger than yourself.
This is your call to action.
To make this post less about complaining and more about do-ing, here are some resources and bits of advice that can help you along the way:
- Learn how to stand up for your team—you’ll be doing that a lot.
- Leaders aren’t great at judging how inclusive they are, so you want to surround yourself with people who will call you out when you’re not being the change they need.
- What’s more, you need to foster an environment where people feel they can have those conversations with you. This often means working tirelessly on your communication style and actively listening — instead of trying to have all the answers (you don’t, and that’s ok). I’ve found Crucial Conversations to be helpful when stakes are high, and the authors offer training.
- Having a diverse workforce is not the same as having an inclusive workplace. Don’t stop at the numbers: strive to create a place where everyone feels they belong so they can do their best work!
- Don’t just be a mentor, be a sponsor.
- Always. Be. Learning. Follow Harvard Business Review and read and share golden posts like What 11 CEOs have learned about championing diversity.
A colleague of mine who is passionate about inclusion-minded leadership has recently started his own newsletter on the topic, and I have high hopes for where his project goes.
Don’t make this one big mistake!
Remember how I said this isn’t about you? You should not strive to be a white knight in shining armor deserving to be showered in praise. This is not that kind of path. (In fact, be worried if people are praising you too much — it’s hard to be critical of someone everyone loves. You might be missing out on crucial conversations.)
You should be a mouthpiece when someone isn’t heard, an advocate when people are unable to be represented, a shield bearer when folks are under attack, an elevator for the stuck, a signal booster for the unnoticed. Wherever possible, let them do the work, and be heard and understood, and represent themselves. You’re the back up, the path carver, the taker of the brunt of the negative impact, always asking, “How can I help?” Always pushing others up, even over yourself.
Strive to be a servant, not a superhero.
This is not glamorous. There is no prize. The reward is that you will help people reach their full potential and die feeling you’ve helped the human race kick that much more ass.
On a final note, if you are thinking, “But, I don’t have any privilege — I’m not a white man,” consider that there is always someone less privileged out there: white women and African American men enjoy more privilege than women of color. Take what small measure of privilege you have and consider how you might use it to lift up the good people around you.
There is always something you can do, from taking on a mentee and writing them letters of recommendation, to offering a sliding scale discount on your used office equipment.
If you have an ounce of privilege, spend it wisely as you go through this life.
My thanks to the men and women who proofread this post before I shared it. As always, everything I write is infinitely improved by the editorial wisdom and feedback of my betters.