A few days ago, I contributed to a roundtable discussion-style post about diversity quotas (that is, setting specific hiring targets around race and gender) on the Key Values blog. Writing my bit there was a good forcing function for exploring the issue of diversity quotas at a bit more length… and if I’m honest, this is a topic I’ve had really strong opinions about for a while but haven’t had the chance to distill. So, here goes.
I think it’s important to ask ourselves what we want to accomplish with diversity quotas in the first place. Are we trying to level the playing field for marginalized groups? To bring in the requisite diversity of thought that correlates so strongly with a better bottom line? Or to improve our optics so that when the press writes about our company’s diversity numbers, we look good? Unless diversity quotas are truly an exercise in optics, I firmly believe that, in the best case, they’re a band-aid that fails to solve deep, underlying problems with hiring and that, in the worst case, they do more harm than good by keeping us complacent about finding better solutions, and paradoxically, by undermining the very movement they’re meant to help. Instead of trying to manage outcomes by focusing on quotas, we should target root causes and create the kind of hiring process that will, by virtue of being fair and inclusive, bring about the diversity outcomes we want.
Why are quotas bad? If it’s not just about optics, and we are indeed trying to level the playing field for marginalized groups, let’s pretend for a moment that quotas work perfectly and bring us all the desired results. Even in that perfect world, we have to ask ourselves if we did the right thing. Any discussion about leveling the playing field for marginalized groups should not just be about race but should also include socioeconomic status. And age. And a myriad of other marginalized groups in tech.
We often focus on race and gender because those are relatively easy to spot. Socioeconomic status is harder because you can’t tell how someone grew up, and you can’t really ask “Hey were your parents poor?” on an application form. Age is a bit easier to spot (especially if you spent your 20s laying around in the sun like I did), but it’s illegal to ask about age in job interviews… to prevent discrimination! Surely, that’s a contradiction in terms. So, if we’re leaving out socioeconomic status and age and a whole bunch of other traits when we assign quotas, are we really leveling the playing field? Or are we creating more problems?
One of the downsides of diversity quotas is the tokenization of candidates, which often manifests as stereotype threat, one of the very things we’re trying to prevent. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I thought I got into MIT because I’m a girl. That feels like shit… in large part because I DON’T KNOW if I got into MIT because I’m a girl. Stereotype threat is a real thing that very clearly makes people underperform at their jobs… and then creates a vicious cycle where the groups we’re trying to help end up being tokenized and scrutinized for underperformance caused by the very thing that’s supposed to be helping them.
So, what about diversity of thought? If you’re really going after candidates who can bring fresh perspectives to the table, their lived experience should trump their gender and ethnicity (though of course, those can correlate heavily). If you’re really after diversity of thought, then educational background/pedigree and previous work experience should weigh just as heavily. Before I became a software engineer, I spent 3 years cooking professionally. Seeing how hiring happened in a completely different field (spoiler: it’s a lot fairer) shaped my views on how hiring should be done within tech. And look, if you put a gun to my head and asked me, given absolutely identical abilities to do the job, whether I should hire a woman who came from an affluent background, aced her SATs because of access to a stellar prep program and supportive parents, went to a top school and interned at a top tech company over a man who dropped out of high school and worked a bunch of odd-jobs and taught himself to code and had the grit to end up with the requisite skills… I’ll take the man.1
But I’ll also feel shitty about it because I don’t think I should have to make choices like this in the first place. And the fact that I have to is what’s broken. In other words, quotas don’t work from either a moral perspective or from a practical one. At best, they’re a band-aid solution covering up the fact that your hiring process sucks, and the real culprit is the unspoken axiom that the way we’re doing hiring is basically fine. I wrote at length about how engineering hiring and interviewing needs to change to support diversity initiatives already, so I won’t do it here, but the gist is that fixing hiring is way harder than instituting quotas, but low-hanging fruit aren’t going to get us to a place of equal opportunity. Better screening and investments in education will. At interviewing.io, because we rely entirely on performance in anonymous technical interviews rather than resumes to surface top-performing candidates, 40% of the hires we’ve made for our customers are people from non-traditional backgrounds and underrepresented groups (and sometimes these are candidates that the same companies had previously rejected based on their resumes). The companies that we’ve hired for that have benefitted from access to these candidates have been willing to undergo the systemic process change and long-term thinking that effecting this level of change requires. We know our approach works. It’s hard, and it takes time and effort, but it works.
1There was a recent New York Times piece about how “diversity of thought” is an excuse that lets us be lazy about working to hire people from underrepresented groups. I believe that the kind of “root cause” approach we’re advocating where we invest in long-term education and create a fairer hiring process is significantly harder than doing something like quotas.