For at least the last decade, engineering companies have talked a great deal about “diversity and inclusion”. Inevitably, many people1 have the takeaway that this means “diversity of thought”. This is like telling a Black Lives Matter supporter that “all lives matter”; of course all lives matter, but that’s completely missing the point2. Diversity of thought is important to avoid groupthink and promote innovation; but that’s not the point of diversity and inclusion efforts3.
Diversity and inclusion means making sure that teams are actually diverse, across a range of visible and not-visible features. Why does that matter?
The business case
There are a lot of business justifications for fostering diverse teams. The consulting firm McKinsey has published some slick reports with charts and stock photos4 to make the case to business leaders: inclusion = performance = profits. There are also arguments about finding and retaining top talent, regulatory mandates, and employee engagement.
The thing is, who cares? This blog isn’t about corporate profit, it’s about effective engineering practices. In my experience, engineers tend not to care much about profit except as a means to do fun and innovative work5. Getting some business benefits from diversity and inclusion is a nice side effect, and if it helps get corporate buy-in it’s hard to complain too much. But it still doesn’t feel right.
The innovation case
All the talk about business case often neglects to consider the mechanism, why do diverse teams perform better and how do we leverage that to enhance performance? It’s actually fascinating. As Harvard Business Review puts it, “diverse teams feel less comfortable“, which slows down their decision making and causes them to think more critically.
If you’re a fan of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, you may recognize this as engaging the “slow” system. We tend to rush to decisions with fast thinking, which is efficient but not always the most effective. The friction caused by diversity forces us to engage the more creative and thoughtful slow thinking. That’s interesting to understand and is a more compelling argument to the technically-minded, but it still doesn’t feel right.
The human case
When I think about diversity and inclusion, I always end up back at the same rationale: it’s just the right thing to do. We live in a world where some members of society have fewer opportunities because of historical racism, sexism, and homophobia, including the aftereffects of that discrimination that are still present today.
Ideally, we would live in a world that was a true meritocracy where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed based on their fit for the role, regardless of skin color, nationality, physical disability, cognitive disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, hairstyle, height, fashion sense, bench press ability, body modification, etc. Though we are getting to that world, we are still far from actually achieving it. A few representative statistics:
- U.S. patent data show that women are inventing at an all-time high, but still less than a quarter of patents issued each year include a female inventor.
- The American Bar Association analyzed the demographics of patent attorneys (who require a strong technical and legal background) and found that, despite recent gains, less than 7% are non-white.
- Black and Hispanic people are underrepresented in STEM fields according to data from Pew Research.
We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s hard to argue that these are the outcomes of equitable opportunity. My personal opinion is that there actually is plenty of opportunity for those who know where to look for it, but that students don’t pursue technical fields because they don’t see it as an option for them.
And who can blame them, when the most famous Black inventor lived a century ago, when we celebrate Watson and Crick but not the female scientist whose work was critical to their discovery, when chemistry labs are not built to accommodate scientists with disabilities.
That’s changing too. There are excellent, diverse STEM role models and communicators out there: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Raven the Science Maven, Abigail Harrison, Helen Arney, the late but still extremely influential Stephen Hawking, just to name a few. This is great!
But is it enough? It’s easy to point to the high-profile success stories and say the problem is solved. It will still take a generation for the students currently looking up to these role models to pursue technical degrees, begin working in the field, and become role models themselves. With each successive generation we move closer to parity and equality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a more active role in bringing about this change as soon as possible.
Consider your role
There is a project called “I Am A Scientist” which aims to show students that anyone can be a STEM professional. In a few decades this effort will no longer be necessary; of course anyone can be a scientist or engineer, who would think otherwise? In the meantime, we (as a society, as engineers interested in fostering the next generation, as teachers and leaders) have to make a deliberate choice6 to recognize, affirm, and support the widest possible range of people who may be interested in STEM, including promoting diverse voices so every student can find a role model that appeals to them.
We must think about the way in which we approach diversity. So many efforts are mere tokenism, made obvious by phrases such as “diversity hire“7 and by carefully arranging corporate photos to “‘highlight” “diversity”8. If you recognize these types of practices at your company, take a moment to consider if the priority is to foster true inclusion or merely to tick a box.
We have to keep promoting inclusion in our workplaces to serve our peers today and in the future. After all, a diverse crowd of STEM degree holders isn’t helpful if they aren’t actually included in the real work. It’s easy to make fun of “unconscious bias training” and the like. But when you actually speak to people from discriminated categories and ask about their experiences you learn about the small inequities that compound to hold people back from participating and from career success. Countering those inequities can be as simple as making sure that everyone is heard and respected, that everyone has the resources and support to advocate for their career opportunities, and offering mentorship.
Clear data exists and can be collected about diversity in STEM fields and that should be our metric for success. When patents issued, papers published, degrees earned, and other outcome measures reach parity with the demographics of the general population, we can claim success. We should all do our small parts to make that happen.
Are you a “diversity candidate” with an experience to share? Do you have other suggestions for increasing inclusion? Leave your comments below.
- usually white men
- and makes the speaker look like a jerk
- not to mention that “diversity of thought” completely ignores the “inclusion” aspect
- to their credit, they swap the phrase to be “inclusion and diversity”, which is a very minor change that emphasizes the essential “inclusion” aspect
- and sometimes bonuses
- originally this said “effort”, but I changed it because this isn’t difficult or time-consuming
- including this particularly gross example
- bumper crop of scare quotes this harvest