March 19, 2020

Not All Diverse Hiring Is Created Equal

I’m a queer Black woman software engineer: I am the perfect cocktail of diversity for so many recruiters. I bring unique perspectives to the table, and the intersection of my identities means I’m often asking questions other folks haven’t yet considered. I also wear these identities proudly: nowadays, you’ll never mistake me as anything other than a queer Black woman in any space I occupy.

But there’s a terrible irony of being the perfect diverse hire when I am also among the most palatable of diverse hires.

Diversity hiring is closely related to being a diverse hire

I’ve most commonly heard the term diversity hire used in a derogatory fashion, to describe an unqualified individual hired for a role simply because their identities count towards the employer’s quota of fill-in-the-blank-here identity. I prefer this definition from Ideal: “Diversity hiring is hiring based on merit with special care taken to ensure procedures are free from biases related to a candidate’s age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other personal characteristics that are unrelated to their job performance.” Diversity hiring is hiring that levels the playing field by removing the biases of those involved in the hiring process, thus letting candidates’ skills and talents speak for themselves. Diversity hiring, when conducted like this, leads to a greater number of diverse hires, most commonly those diverse in race and gender. It doesn’t, however, do anything about the treatment of diverse individuals once they enter an organization.

What kind of diverse hire am I?

I am light-skinned, soft-spoken, and I was raised in white spaces. I am a mixed-race Black woman: I grew up in a predominantly white community and have attended predominantly white schools for my entire life. My light skin often makes me the Black person who is safe and approachable for non-Black folks. I am quiet unless with friends and I avoid conflict at (nearly) all costs, which means I’m unlikely to challenge folks in person unless I’m in a supportive space.

What this means for me in tech is that I am just “other” enough to check the boxes that make recruiters feel like they’ve done something right — but when I lean into my aforementioned qualities, I’m also easy to get used to and it isn’t terribly hard for me to blend in. These are incredible privileges in tech, which I’ve had to balance with the innate challenges of existing as a diverse person in tech.

So what?

So yes, I am a diverse hire. My presence comes with experiences and viewpoints that often other folks in the room won’t share. But I also have to be aware of the ways my own privilege affects my experience in the room, and who else is still barred from the room because they are a less palatable diverse hire.

As with anyone who exists in a space of privilege, I have a responsibility to use my privilege to benefit others. But given that I am also a diverse individual, how can I do this successfully? Here are three things I’ve done, and will continue to do, with my unique position as a palatable diverse person in tech.

1. Speak up. Always speak up.

Whether it’s in a meeting and I see that I’m the darkest person there, or whether I’m in a one-on-one and I notice I’m being treated differently than another diverse individual, I need to say something. I can be as unobtrusive as possible and point the issue out to a sympathetic manager at a later point, or I can bring up the issue I see in the moment I see it, but I have to find a way to voice the problem I’ve identified. If I’m the only person who truly sees the issue, bringing it to other folks’ attention might mean real change could follow. If others see the problem but have chosen not to address it, I have the opportunity to spark a dialog around what it means to truly be a diverse workplace — which involves talking about these kinds of issues.

Speaking up about issues around diversity might lead nowhere. The person I choose to address might simply ignore what I have to say, and continue on as intended. (I really do get it: it can be hard or even scary to confront diversity issues head-on, especially when you don’t really understand it.)

Speaking up might lead to anger directed at me. I might be accused of making a big deal out of nothing (that’s happened a lot, particularly online) or I might silently be labelled as a problem employee. It could delay promotions, or even lead to me being encouraged to exit the company. (An extreme example, but I have watched it happen to close friends.)

But speaking up might also lead to a conversation that leads (sooner or later) to real change coming to the workplace. People don’t know what they don’t know, and those truly committed to making the workplace better for everyone in it will appreciate being educated on ways they can do better.

And if speaking up leads to a negative outcome for me, I have the privilege of deciding whether or not I want to continue working in a space that won’t listen to my analysis of the issues that I am fully qualified to speak on.

2. Commit to being a resource for other diverse folks.

I know a ton of folks, many of them white, who are in positions of power in tech, and I see these people posting job and networking opportunities all the time. I’ve also worked in several drastically different tech spaces, and have lots of advice and thoughts on how to enter and (try to) thrive in each of these spaces. When minority folks get in touch with me, whether or not I know them, I share as much information and experiences as I can. It’s literally the least I can do to support fellow diverse tech folks, and it doesn’t have to take a ton of my time.

I make myself available as a resource as much as possible. My relative privilege in tech means I have a lot of experience that many folks much like me don’t have, and I care deeply about making sure diverse folks are able to move about in the tech industry in whatever direction they choose.

If I don’t know someone well enough to refer personally to opportunities, I try to get to know them with brief conversations. If I’m still not comfortable referring someone, I take the time to send them resources, postings, and my thoughts on how they can proceed down the path in which they’re interested.

The point here is that there is always some action I can take to help other diverse folks, and it only takes a little bit of thought to figure out what that might be.

3. Be relentlessly honest in all situations.

Nowadays I am always honest in all directions when it comes to the tech industry. I will talk to diverse folks about what it’s like to be a diverse person in the industry, and why I’ve shifted the way I show up there. At the same time, I’ll talk to white and non-Black folks about how they need to (and how they can!) do better at diversity hiring when I am one of the most diverse of their diverse hires.

I’ve had many conversations with diverse folks from my school who ask for my advice on the tech industry, and are surprised when I tell them I mostly hated it and am unlikely to go back. Following that, I always tell folks that they should think more deeply about their own motivations than my reasons for doing what I did. I never blame folks for choosing to work in the tech industry, particularly when the positives (high pay, flexible working locations, relative job security) outweigh the negatives for whatever reason. My priority is making sure that diverse folks in particular who make this choice know what they might be stepping into.

I’m also completely over passive-aggressiveness in the workplace, and I’m over avoiding topics simply because they are difficult. Honesty does not have to mean cruelty, and working together to solve hard topics is one of the most effective ways I’ve bonded with coworkers with whom I have essentially nothing in common. Being honest in a straightforward and kind way has allowed me to have many challenging conversations with folks who appreciated my directness — whether or not these conversations actually lead to concrete change is up for debate, but I did what I could in the moment.

Of course, throughout all of this I still have to care for myself, and sometimes I will be unable to take the above steps. But uncomfortable is not the same as unable, and I am committed to pushing myself as far as I can go to help other minority folks achieve and surpass my position in the tech industry.

And if I, a queer Black woman software engineer, can take the time and effort to identify and consider my privilege and how I can use it to benefit others, so can literally everybody else! If you’re stuck on where to start, just scroll back up and think about how you can adapt the three points above to your situation.

Good luck!

Naomi Day

Speculative fiction and Afrofuturist writer. Software engineer. US-based; globally oriented. I think and write about building new worlds.

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