by Sharon Florentine

Changing the definition of diversity

Oct 27, 2017
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

No matter what Apple thinks, 12 white, blonde, blue-eyed men do not a diverse workforce make.

women group colorful crowd diversity
Credit: Thinkstock

Can a group of people who all share a similar identity, who have all had very similar life, education, work and family experiences, really think differently?

Denise Young Smith, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Apple, sure seems to think so. Speaking of her diversity and inclusion work at Apple, Smith said, “There can be [12] white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room, and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

Are they? Are they, really?

Are they going to understand how it feels to walk into a meeting as the only woman (even as a passes-for-straight white woman) and know, in your gut, that at least one man is going to ask you to get him coffee? Or to look around the room at a tech event and realize the only people who look like you are those serving food and drinks — something a queer, female engineer of color discussed with the audience in a panel discussion at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration. To worry about whether the building in which you’re working offers gender-neutral bathrooms — or, worse, to know there is legislation that makes it illegal for you to use the bathroom of the gender you identify with. Or to struggle with a “high tech” soap dispenser that doesn’t recognize black skin. To wonder if a recruiter or hiring manager will even glance at your résumé because your name doesn’t “read” as white. How, exactly, are 12 straight, white, upper-middle-class, cisgender men going to recognize these issues?

Here’s a spoiler: Unless they’re one of the rare allies, they’re not. I call bullshit. This is another way of framing the “cognitive diversity/diversity of thought” argument. It’s yet another way to avoid looking at the ways the patriarchy and white, male privilege benefits straight, white, cisgender males and disenfranchises everyone else. It’s another way of reinforcing that straight, white, cisgender males are the “norm” and everyone else is an anomaly. As Hadley Freeman points out in The Guardian, “… white, straight [people] don’t have an identity — they are just people.”

Adjusting the definition of diversity to look good 

Smith has since walked back her statement about 12 white men being a diverse group, but it doesn’t erase the problem that many do consider that diverse.

Why are we still having this conversation? Oh, right. Because those same white, straight, cisgender men want to distract from the fact that the tech industry is still failing miserably at attracting and retaining anyone other than straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle- and upper-class men. 

“Whether companies do it intentionally or not, I worry that they will adjust the definition of diversity so that, conveniently, it’s already achieved,” writes Bärí Williams in the New York Times

That’s a perfectly reasonable worry.

Identity informs your experiences. You’re going to have a vastly different experience in the world if you’re a black, queer woman in tech (yes, they do exist!) than if you’re a white, straight male. And that identity and experience is going to impact and inform your ideas, your thoughts, and your ability to identify challenges, problem solve, and — dare I say it — innovate. 

Or, as Williams writes, if we substitute “cognitive diversity” and “diversity of thought” in these arguments, “…the most meaningful ways through which [cognitive diversity] is formed (cultural, religious, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, ability and especially gender and racial differences) may be forgotten.”