Gender and ethnic parity is not equivalent to workplace diversity

Former Google employee James Damore’s recently leaked memo about his old employer’s employment activities has brought the discussion about IT hiring practices to the fore. After reading a vast number of articles written on the topic, it would appear that many believe the terms workplace diversity and gender representation are interchangeable. They of course are not, and doing so is not only intellectually dishonest, but it’s incendiarily disingenuous to the point that doing so actual hinders the progression of the important goal of balanced gender and ethnic representation in the workforce.

How do you define diversity?

I ran for president of my University Student Council twenty-five years ago. One of the other candidates was an enlightened progressive whose main platform plank was to promote and improve diversity in all areas of the university. It was a message that was well received in the social sciences, law and humanities buildings, but it ran into a brick wall when it was trucked into engineering.

In compliance with all preconceived stereotypes, gender parity in the engineering department was a little lacking back then, but a few of those future train conductors were getting a bit tired of constantly being beaten with the ‘lack of diversity’ stick. A student stepped up to the microphone during question period and asked the candidate if she felt the engineering department lacked diversity. After the candidate stumbled in her effort to provide a diplomatic answer, the student followed up with something more rhetorical.

“The leader of the school’s Gay and Lesbian committee is an engineer. Our representative to the student council is from India. Three of the five students who are on full scholarships are second generation Chinese, and even my friends with paler complexions, who you believe lack diversity, are here on Visas from countries like Australia, Russia, Israel and eastern Europe. So how can you possibly stand there and tell me we are not diverse?” The student was mad, and he had every right to be.

The engineering faculty was indeed diverse in a variety of beautiful even inspirational ways. Gender parity was certainly lacking, and I can think of a few minority groups that were under-represented, but for someone to stand in front of that group of students and tell them they weren’t diverse was an undeserved and unmitigated insult.

Confronting intellectual dishonesty

Even twenty-five years later, that exchange still resonates with me. Not just because it was so enjoyable to see a social justice warrior be so thoroughly destroyed intellectually, but because the student wasn’t wrong. He had every right to stand up and object to the insults and the derision that were constantly being thrown at the faculty to which he was proud to be a part.

With a history of participating in medium-term consulting engagements, I can say that I have worked on an admirable number of projects in a wide array of cities. I can’t remember any engagement in which the project room looked like a scene out of the 1950’s based TV series Mad Men, where every programmer was a white male, and every developer was a product of a privileged background. In fact, I was on a Toronto based project a number of years ago where my nickname on a team of over thirty individuals was ‘the white guy.’

I’m proud of all of those Agile projects I’ve worked on over the years, and I’ve made friends with people who come from a more diverse set of backgrounds than I could possibly have ever imagined. And the friends I’ve made include a number of incredible female programmers, although I will admit that all of those project teams on which I worked lacked in terms of gender parity. But it would be an insult to me and to everyone I’ve worked with to tell me that the Agile and Scrum teams I’ve worked on weren’t made up of a diverse set of people, because they were. I have seen great diversity in the workforce. I have not seen great gender parity. There is a difference.

There is certainly an issue in the technology field in terms of an under-representation of both women and certain visible minorities. But gender and ethnic parity is not the same thing as workplace diversity. Arguing that they are is disingenuous, and perpetuating this type of insulting intellectual dishonesty will do more to hinder the goal of achieving balanced gender and ethnic representation in the workplace than it ever will to enhance it.

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