Diversity quotas suck. Here’s why.

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.

18 Responses to “Diversity quotas suck. Here’s why.”

  1. Mark Knowlton

    BRAVO!! As someone who has been hiring or placing software engineers in Boston for over 20 years, I have seen the PC-driven impetus to hire “diversity” candidates at all costs. The thought that having a process based on meritocracy is somehow inherently “unfair” is ridiculous, but it has become the droning refrain of so many HR/TA departments in their quest to be “fair”. Imagine if NFL teams stopped making arm strength, accuracy and decision-making abilities as criteria to draft quarterbacks in favor of lowering the bar to include under-represented groups who would like to be an NFL quarterback? I wonder how many Super Bowls those teams would win?

  2. Dan MacNeil

    @Mark Knowlton , your example isn’t the best. For a long, long time being white was a requirement for getting a quarterback job in the NFL.

  3. Ed

    It’s entirely possible that creating a very fair hiring process will bring about the opposite of your diversity targets.

    What if a tech firm ‘hires fairly’ and ends up with almost all white and asian males?

    What then?

    • aline

      If it’s actually fair hiring, then I’m OK with it and means we have a pipeline problem. As such, I think we all have a responsibility to level the playing field in ways that aren’t just about hiring, and hiring is just a small part of the picture. Education, especially early on, is a hugely important part of the picture.

  4. Antonia Powers

    Meh, you pretend that all groups have the same power when you “know” there’s an asymmetry of power. Comments that hiring someone from a marginalised group automatically means that the required level of expertise has been lowered is clearly representative of the asymmetry.

  5. Russell

    The author fails to realize that diversity quotas are not ideal but the best concrete idea yet to consciously address the “root causes.” Otherwise we will perpetuate the kinds of echo chambers which result in a white-male dominated world. Until the status quo is disrupted by companies and universities taking SOME action, nothing changes. By looking beyond who makes the best first impression in a 1 hour interview because they’re being interviewed by someone who is comfortable looking at a white face, the cycle will continue. Only when you introduce people of color into spaces where none exist (with or without the temporary discomfort of change) will white people even begin to move beyond the denial of their own white supremacy. Its easy for a white person to say “I don’t care about color” when everyone around you is white. It’s also easy to say that a white person is a ‘better fit’ for a job when everyone else at the job site is white. We need to start somewhere with better concrete ideas beyond the above philosophy of “when the systems of the world change, then I’ll change my system.” The root cause is the self-perpetuating echo chamber in an infinite loop. Until you bring in a diversity of backgrounds and voices, you don’t even know what you’re missing and gaining by adding diversity when you put up a wall and refuse to move out of your current comfort zone. As for being a woman who is ashamed to be accepted to a school on the grounds that you are a woman and always feel you need to keep proving yourself, that’s your own feelings of shame and shortcomings of thought. Instead, you should realize that the school can gain from you and that’s why they want you. You might instead look at yourself as a valuable missing piece of the puzzle who brings something to the organization that it is lacking, and even though you were brought on board to fit a quota, the quota was in place to help organizations who didn’t even know it was lacking because of the echo chamber of the culture.

    • Antonia Powers

      It’s like you didn’t really read the article, and still just preach that the only diversity we can have is gender and race. Not really helping much either which is ironic considering your comment.

  6. Phoebe

    There was a really interesting study from Sweden about gender quotas, summarized here: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/04/05/gender-quotas-and-the-crisis-of-the-mediocre-man/
    TLDR – they found that quotas didn’t impact the competence of the female politicians, but it significantly improved the competence of the male politicians (and of the group as a whole).

    Fixing everything else to drive the fair outcomes — the unconscious bias, the pipeline, interview styles, evaluation criteria — that stuff is HARD and there are always excuses why we aren’t yet seeing results in our numbers. If quota targets, on their own, help organizations achieve higher overall competence, why not use them? More studies are certainly needed, but a quotas are a lot easier to measure and manage than “did you give this person’s unconventional background enough weight while evaluating performance on the algorithms coding test”?

  7. Andrew

    What if we took race, gender, age, and the rest out of the equation by obscuring them all during the interview process? You can probably find out a lot of what you need to know without hearing or seeing the other person.

    You still need to see them and hear them to make sure they don’t have hygiene issues or a skull tattooed over their face, and to be sure that they’re real. But you could isolate that part of the interview so that it’s strictly to determine aspects of employability that have nothing to do with skills. That part could be used only to rule people out based on reasonable (and legal) criteria and kept hidden from anyone performing the technical/skills evaluation.

    That’s sort of a brainstorming out loud idea, probably full of all sorts of holes.

  8. Andrew

    With regard to my last comment – now I see that it’s a premise of interviewing.io. I feel a little bit dumb and a little bit smart at the same time.


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