24 May 2014

The "Economic Argument" For Diversity

This week, I gave a talk with Ashe Dryden at La Conf advocating for diversity in tech. In the talk, we addressed a wide range of questions and concerns that commonly come up when talking about diversity. Afterwards, I had an extended conversation with a gentleman who was quite insistent that I should spend less time talking about equality, empathy, and opportunity. Instead, he thought, I should emphasise the well-documented business advantages of diversity: increased quality, productivity, efficiency, and of course the resulting higher profits. This would, he said, cause businessmen like himself to want to hire diverse teams.

The problem with that entire idea is that it assumes that the only action needed to produce a diverse industry is to hire diverse teams. While the business advantages of diversity are real, I don’t mention them to encourage diverse hiring. I mention them so I can debunk the common belief that increasing diversity somehow requires “lower standards” or “charitable handouts”. Diversity means exactly the opposite. It means higher standards for less-competent men who nonetheless make more money than their female coworkers. Diversity means jobs stop going to less qualified applicants because their name sounds male, or white. Fair treatment and equal opportunities based on skill and experince would mean higher standards and less handouts.

The problem with arguing for diversity based on economics is that it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Seeking diversity to increase profits perpetuates the existing, abusive system. If a business seeks to hire women or minorities solely to make more money, they still won’t be motivated to treat them fairly. Those businesses will continue to dismiss minorities’ needs (that would lower profits), pay minorities poorly (lower expenses, too!), and then claim the credit for more profitable results.

That hypothetical situation is the present day. We already have businesses willing to exploit minorities for higher profits. Unsurprisingly, women and minorities notice they are being treated poorly, and leave both their jobs and the entire industry. Correcting diversity’s downward trend requires more than simply hiring more diverse people. It means changes at every stage to counteract bias and remove mistreatment.

We need ungendered expectations and role models for children, and equal access to computers and other equipment across gender and race. We need to stop teachers and classmates who “know” minorities are incapable and unmotivated. We need everyone to be treated fairly and not challenged, attacked, or threatened if they are different. We need opportunities to be given fairly to everyone instead of automatically going to white dudes who already get more than their share. We need hiring and pay to be based on skill and ability, not gender or race.

Focusing on the so-called economic argument for diversity is just a distraction tactic. It takes attention away from the ways minorities are already being abused and claims it’s “helping” to mistreat them slightly differently. I can already see what the economic argument for diversity does by looking at how terrible tech is today. Fuck that. Diversity means every person is treated not just equally but well, with empathy, consideration, and understanding. That’s a future worth fighting to reach.