“Startups don’t have time for diversity.”
This statement, from an entrepreneur and investor, and a self-described man of color himself, is a succinct summation of one of the core elements of misguided thinking underlying the problem of homogeneity in the tech startup world. But it also just scratches the surface.
When he made this proclamation in a room full of people working diligently to diversify the technology industry, it was both alarming and sadly somewhat expected. Saying that startups don’t have time for diversity is in many ways saying that product comes first, human beings second, and that diversity is more of an issue of eventually checking the right boxes than it is an issue of creating a place where people of a wide variety of backgrounds feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.
While it is true that startups are often trying to beat the clock to launch and capture a segment of the market, that ticking clock is the exact reason why being thoughtful about diversity matters so much at the beginning.
As Stacy-Marie Ishmael of The Financial Times astutely pointed out, if a startup is not thoughtful about what type of organization they want to build when they are three white men, before they know it they will be forty five white men, and they will wonder why they are not attracting any significant numbers of women or people color to work at their company.
When a startup is not thoughtful from the very beginning about the type of company they want to build, what type of people they want to attract, and how they want to treat their employees, they risk falling prey to the subtle (and not so subtle) pattern matching, and copycat policies and behaviors that keep the industry homogenous.
It all starts with the hiring process.
If you are a white male hiring through the network of friends you made at your Ivy League school, then you are most likely going to find yourself hiring additional white males. If you have a team of white males and ask them to refer their friends, just by the nature of their network, they are more likely to refer people who are also white and male.
When women and people of color are then trying to decide whether or not to work at your company, your team page filled with nothing but white male faces isn’t going to send them the signal that this is a place where they would necessarily feel comfortable.
Then there are the other signals that convey to people from non-dominant groups that they may not be welcome. Consider what the following signals might say, for instance, to women considering working for your company:
- Advertising that your corporate event will include women being on hand to fetch beer.
- Listing on-the-job alcohol and video games as top office perks.
- Using aggressive words like “warrior” or “ninja” in your job descriptions.
This is not to say that women don’t enjoy beer or gaming, or consider themselves badasses on the job. But consider whether you’re marketing to the majority of the technology industry — the same people everyone else is competing for — or whether you are reaching out to new (and more diverse) talent.
If a potential employee decides to look past the issues of homogenous “About Us” pages and gender-skewed job description language, they might then find themselves asking questions about benefits, leave policies, and expectations of face time, and it is here that the subtle hints often thrive.
There are startups, for instance, that serve dinner nightly at the office or that do team-building social gatherings on nights and weekends (hints that you probably don’t – or shouldn’t – have a family and kids to go home to). There are many startups whose personnel policies make no mention of maternity, paternity, or childcare leave (except where mandated to mention unpaid leave under FMLA) – often because the policy template that they received from their attorney (the same template being distributed to many other startups), failed to include those types of leaves in the first place.
Added together, it is easy to see how all of these signals—even those that seem subtle or innocuous—contribute to the ongoing lack of diversity of all types in the technology industry.
A skeptic might argue that things like foosball tables, beer fridges, and team dinners are essential parts of organizational culture. But while it is true that every company reserves the right to practice whatever (legal) rituals it would like, and that not every ritual contributes to homogeneity, startups who make the choice to blindly engage in rituals without considering their impact are setting themselves up to fall into the trap of creating workplaces that both lack diversity and fail to honor it as something more than a checkbox.
In the face of ample evidence that diverse workforces produce better results than homogenous ones, we can make an argument for diversity as both a business imperative and a moral imperative, but we will not make headway within the technology industry until we, in greater numbers, loudly challenge the notion that thoughtfulness and diversity are things that we don’t have time for.