Although diversity in the workplace has become an increasingly critical issue, there are still many misconceptions floating around office hallways and company conference rooms. When you’re dealing with conflicting information, insufficient discussion or just a lack of familiarity with the topic, understanding what the truth is can be downright difficult. No one knows this more than Nicole Sanchez, VP of Social Impact at GitHub. In the decades that she’s been working to improve diversity in the workforce, she’s heard nearly every misconception out there.
To get the facts straight, we sat down with Sanchez to chat everything from pipeline issues to barriers to entry and then some. Here are a few of the highlights from our conversation — what you learn might surprise you.
1. “Diversity is just a pipeline problem.”
When confronted with poor diversity numbers, some companies are quick to say that while they’re more than willing to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds, there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates out there. And while certain demographics are indeed underrepresented in higher education, data shows that there are more available workers from underrepresented backgrounds than many companies are hiring.
“One thing I always hear is, ‘I don’t care if you’re black, brown, white, red or blue — if you’re a good engineer, I’ll hire you.’ Unfortunately, the data shows that that’s just not true,” Sanchez says.
One major contributing factor, according to Sanchez, is that diversity efforts need to be prioritized by top-tier executives.
“Diversity is not one of those things that will stick if you treat it as an ancillary,” says Sanchez. “If your mandate is not coming from senior leadership, your ability to create truly diverse staff and inclusive culture plummets. What this sector needs is CEOs who clear the path for experts to come in and do the work… and indicate this is as serious of an issue and as important of a business initiative as sales, engineering, etc.”
2. “Diversity means lowering the bar.”
One of the most frequently cited reasons for not wanting to invest in diversity initiatives is that companies do not want to compromise the quality of the people they’re hiring. But, Sanchez argues, this is largely “a red herring”. The problem isn’t a lack of quality — it’s that too often, companies mistake homogeneity for quality.
“The thing people often get wrong is that sameness is the ideal. People think it’s some sort of marker of equality, and that’s not it,” Sanchez insists.
For example, studies have shown that qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds are often turned away when interviewers fall back on informal assessments like who they would want to be friends with (who, incidentally, tend to be those most similar to the interviewer) rather than who has the necessary skills. Similarity is rewarded even in seemingly neutral technical evaluations like brain teasers and whiteboarding.
Companies who measure candidates against more concrete, nondiscriminatory indicators of high performance, on the other hand, are able to ensure that their staff is both diverse and high quality — perhaps even higher quality than before. Many studies have suggested that diverse teams outperform others, and further promising research is underway, Sanchez says.
3. “Diversity efforts make it harder for everyone else to get a job.”
Diversity initiatives can seem threatening to some — if companies focus on hiring those from underrepresented backgrounds, does that mean they have an unfair advantage?
“Statistically, that’s never been proven” on a wide scale, Sanchez says.
In fact, some evidence suggests that minorities are often at a disadvantage. Research suggests that job seekers who don’t have “white-sounding” names are less likely to get a job, regardless of the strength of their resume. Other studies have shown that in order to have the same chance of securing a job, Black men actually need more education than their white peers.
“People often ask me how far I want to take [diversity efforts] and I say that I’m not sure, but we’re nowhere near it. If [workplaces] are to mirror the population demographics, we still have a long way to go,” Sanchez says.
4. “All you need is a diversity of thought.”
Companies sometimes argue that true diversity comes from diversity of thought regardless of race, disability, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. But, Sanchez says, this is largely a cop out.
“Any time you put two people in a room together, you’ll have diversity of thought. Even if they’re identical twins,” Sanchez says. “The problem is, if you don’t actively engage people on different parts of the human spectrum, you won’t get as wide a diversity of thought as you otherwise would.”
And that wide diversity of thought is paramount to how people set out to solve problems, and even identify them in the first place. This, Sanchez believes, is critical to true innovation.
“We have a lot of apps that tell us how to find a date or get food delivered to our front door, but not enough around how to find clean water, track health outcomes in your neighborhood or other things that disproportionately impact communities of color,” Sanchez says.
When you recruit and support an inclusive culture, Sanchez believes, things turn out much differently — you can “solve problems that are faced by millions of people, rather than just [you] and [your] cohort.” And today’s most innovative organizations know that.
“If we’re not investing in a more diverse group,” Sanchez says, “we’re going to be left behind.”