Earlier this year, the topic of diversity recruitment sparked a lot of conversations at my company and, honestly, it had been starting to drive me a little crazy.
My coworkers’ intentions were great — they had noticed and were able to acknowledge different aspects of our office’s environment that had fallen privy to tech community stereotypes: that the company had at least 15 women out of a total of 50-60 people and only 3 of them were employed as developers; that 3 female developers versus at least 30 male developers was not so great; and, oh yeah, that there was only 1 full-time black employee in the office (yours truly). My coworkers could speak to this and remarked that they recognized their privilege in being able to walk into the office and feel like they were surrounded by people like them in many ways. They noted that while that felt great, it was also representative of a huge problem.
As a black woman software engineer — and someone who devotes herself to finding ways for people of color to reclaim their position in the STEM space — these insights from my coworkers should have been, and were, music to my ears. Hearing this level of self-awareness and being able to engage with them openly was incredible. Where this interaction began to transition into not so great, however, was the moment I realized sharing my experience of being an “only” or “one of a few” in the tech world was not always being treated by some of the people around me as just that, an experience, but being misinterpreted as “expertise” in the realm of representing the collective experiences of the “onlies” in the tech world. I was beginning to sense that I was no longer “Daphne, another engineer at our company” but, instead, I was sliding into the role of “Daphne, the voice of the underrepresented” (and that that slide had already started before I even knew I was on it.). That’s when I knew there was a problem.
Talking about diversity at our companies is important and necessary if we want to properly address issues like those surrounding our hiring practices and our recruitment strategies, especially in spaces as white and male-dominated as tech. However, I think what is often forgotten is that how we discuss diversity is actually more important than just simply discussing it. It’s not enough to have an unstructured, unfocused dialogue on a topic that touches so many sensitive domains with people who are generally unequipped and uninformed on how to talk about it. In fact, it’s dangerous. It’s potentially asking a group of people to have an hour long meeting to unpack and deconstruct the social/political/economic constructs of race and gender (among other equally heavy constructs) together while also having each person acknowledge and hold their own personal and professional selves — as well as their own histories — accountable and hoping, by the end, action items are produced so everyone can move forward and happily return to their desks. It’s unreasonable. Our society does not prepare us at all to have those kinds of discussions, especially in the workplace. How can we talk productively about diversity if we don’t know how? What does “productively” even mean, realistically? And, most importantly, how are we defining “diversity?” That word gets thrown around more than “fraud” in an episode of Love and Hip Hop and everyone has a completely different idea of what it means based on their own context. So if we’re going to talk about “diversity” for real, we need to clarify what each of us mean by it. For some, it’s race. For some, it’s gender. For others, it’s physical/mental ability. Others, it’s age, academic pedigree, nationality, religion…the list goes on. And for many, “diversity” refers to a tight, intricately bound combination of several or all of those identities. But we need to be explicit in our definitions before we start throwing big words like “diversity” around.
Now, once we’ve defined what diversity specifically means to each person involved in the discussion, this should NOT, under any means, be mistaken for that person becoming the unofficial ambassador for that particular community of people who may (or may not) share that experience. Voicing what one has experienced in regards to their view of diversity does not mean it is her responsibility to (a) reach out to others she has identified as sharing that experience (everyone should have agency over their own identity) or (b) educate those who do not share her experience and serve as a representative and a teacher for those who have questions. She also should not have to become a therapist in order to help those confronting their societal guilt deal with it and feel better about themselves. Voicing an experience is just voicing an experience. If someone else can relate, great. If no one can relate, totally fine. Either way, that experience’s validity remains exactly the same and is not affected by the presence or absence of a cosigner. And when that experience is singular, that person is no more or no less an “expert” in it and should not be looked to in that way because it is a slippery slope to then extracting only their voice and pushing the rest of that person into the background — the same process of dehumanization that provided the foundation for racism in the first place.
So, in conclusion, here are some ways to prevent alienating and singling out a friend, coworker, etc. who expresses to you their experiences with being an “only” or “one of a few” —
(1) Do not go to them (afterwards or at all) to discuss your societal guilt relating to their experience. It’s not fair to put that on them and while you may think you’re building a bond by being so ~open and honest and aware~ realize you are actually giving them more reason not to want to engage with you because of your demonstrated ability to make their experience all about you.
(2) Do not get on the defensive when your friend is sharing their experience, especially if it involves something they feel you did or said to them. Put your ego away and admit to hurting them, even though it may not have been your intention, and stop trying to make the discussion about you and defending “the point” of your hurtful actions.
(3) If you think of something and want to ask this person for validation to ensure that your thought is not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., then chances are it probably is racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. Sorry to break it to you. Probably best to keep it to yourself. Or, better yet, read this and then continue to educate yourself.
(4) Do not ask them to be an ambassador. If that person is not employed as a recruiter for your company, do not make it their responsibility to go out and find or reach out to “people like them.” Let them do the job they were hired to do and refer who they see fit without the implied weight of their referral being about bringing in more “people like them.”
There you have it. This definitely isn’t a complete list, but it’s certainly a start. My hope is that if we can start framing our diversity discussions better and more clearly, we can ensure that everyone’s voice has equal weight in the conversation.