"Where are all the ladies, daddy?"

Late last year our VP of Marketing visited the UK office with his two young daughters. As they concluded their tour, the eldest asked an awkward question - where were all the ladies?

This wasn't the catalyst for our newfound focus on diversity - that process was already underway. But it was a neat indicator of the scale of the problem.

What we need is a committee

At the start of 2016 we formed a diversity committee; I promptly joined, bringing my enthusiasm and my straight white male perspective to the mix. We identified gender diversity as our first target and got to work. Since then we've noodled along, quietly making progress.

Along the way we've made some missteps. Something I think we have failed to deliver is a strong, clear and universally inspiring motivation for tackling diversity in the workplace.

We have failed to deliver ... a strong, clear and universally inspiring motivation

In sharing external materials and some personal perspectives, we've hit upon a few motivations that haven't resonated well for me personally:

  • Diverse companies make more money. πŸ’ΈπŸ€‘πŸ’Έ
  • 50% of people are women; 50% of our developers should be too. πŸ‘­πŸ‘­πŸ‘¬πŸ‘¬
  • Our customers are n% female; we must mirror this to increase sales. πŸ‘«πŸ’°πŸ‘«
  • Do it for your (possibly hypothetical) daughter! πŸ‘¨β€πŸ‘©β€πŸ‘§

These all have some solid elements to their foundation, but they're riddled with weaknesses, too. At their best they're feeble - not compelling, with a whiff of unnecessary selfishness. At their worst, they raise the spectre of positive/reverse discrimination, spoiling what should be an inspiring and engaging effort with the bitter taste of unfair and unmeritocratic decision-making.

So why should we focus on diversity?

Over the year so far, I've hit upon two motivations that I find clear and inspiring:

1. Neurodiversity brings strength

Diversity of perspective leads to better performing teams delivering better solutions. This is backed up by research[citation needed], but also feels intuitively true: myopically-focused brains can bring technical excellence; organised brains can bring structure and predictability; social brains can smooth over the cracks to maintain a cohesive whole.

Gender biases tell you nothing about how to relate to, or what to expect from the individual.

Every human being is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Gender biases tell you nothing about how to relate to, or what to expect from the individual; I expect that it is entirely possible to hire women who think exactly the same as a "typical" male.

Striving for physical diversity is, then, a clumsy instrument to select for neurodiversity. But if certain types of brain more often inhabit certain types of body then we have to work to remove any body-based filters. In the end we want to build brilliant teams powered by the creativity and stability that comes from a varied selection of brains.

2. Striving for equality is the right thing to do

A lack of diversity, wherever it exists, exists for a reason. In the case of women in tech, that reason has to be some combination of:

  1. In general, brain types commonly correlating with biologically female gender don't find the challenges presented or the rewards delivered by a career in technology appealing.
  2. Something about the mechanisms of training for or working in a career in technology gets in the way of women following this path.

If I were to point the finger at what I believe to be the problem, I'd lay the blame firmly with option 2. Not being a brain scientist, I can't discount a general female aversion to computer science problems. Being a human with eyes and ears, however, I can see and hear the reality of barriers.

The goal is to be confident that there are no artificial barriers to women enjoying and progressing in a career that I love.

The concrete goal here should not be to hire 50% female developers tomorrow; the goal is simply to be confident that there are no artificial barriers to women enjoying and progressing in a career that I love.

[Edit: 2016-07-19] Hiring targets exist on a spectrum - 50% female developers tomorrow is one end of that spectrum. The opposite end - tackling the long term "pipeline problem" without aggressive short term targets - can also look an awful lot like doing nothing right now. As with any spectrum, as you bias towards one end of it occasionally you'll swing too far in that direction. A 50% target is aggressive and risks alienating potential allies, but if you're going to lean towards one end of this spectrum there's a lot to be said for biasing towards material action today.

Why does motivation matter?

When embarking upon a diversity effort, especially perhaps in the UK, you're going to face skepticism - especially amongst enlightened, open-minded colleagues who already think they're doing everything they need to do. If you can't share a compelling motivation, you're going to lose your audience quickly - at best they'll think you're wasting your time, at worst you'll damage morale and sour the mood around diversity generally.

If you can't share a compelling motivation, you're going to lose your audience quickly

Diversity is closely tied to equality, and striving towards equality is an important goal for any age. It's okay to make mistakes but if you pick up the cause, you want to do more good than bad.

So what next?

If there's one thing I've learned about diversity as a topic, it's that even with the best intentions it's easy to take a wrong turn in one's thinking and end up being stupid.

The only thing to do is keep the ideas rattling around in the rock-tumbler of discussion - I'll try and keep writing as my thoughts evolve, and if anybody has a perspective they'd like to share I'd love to hear it :)