The tech community has demonstrated that it is at best confused about what type of diversity businesses should aim for, in order to advance well. It is one thing to curb discrimination, but on the topic of diversity, I think we should be looking for “diversity in perspectives”.
Diversity has hardly been an easy topic to understand. For centuries, the human civilization has been trying to deal with just what diversity is and how best to handle it. So, it is no surprise that it leads to exhaustion as Dick Costolo gets hammered on the lack of women on the Twitter board. Those who followed the NYTimes article and the less than ideal exchange that happened on Twitter following a harsh comment by @dickc know that the situation is getting so much attention.
On the topic of “women as minority”, I have very conflicted views. I’ve written earlier on this topic, advocating that women need to be confident and trust in their abilities to be as good or better as their male counterparts. So, this question of “should an organization be compelled to have a woman on their board” makes me very uncomfortable. If you are a woman, would you like to be hired because you are a woman (of course you’d be subject to a minimum bar) or would you like to be hired because there isn’t a better candidate than you for the job? I’d prefer the latter myself.
For what it’s worth, I think we are hung up on the wrong question! We are implicitly making this be about discrimination rather than diversity in a meaningful sense. Have you hired the best candidate you could find for the job? Of course, there are all kinds of other factors – a reasonable timeline for one – but, in general, if you answered yes to that question, you are done!
Diversity In Perspectives
Now, diversity in perspectives, however, is a completely different thing. A company like Twitter needs creativity in multiple dimensions. Arguably, understanding female users is one area. But, I have a hard time professing that you need a woman to understand female users. Would you hire a teenager to the board so you can understand teenage users? Not necessarily. In a similar manner, the key is that you have a board that can bring in diverse perspectives that are important to your business. The real problem lies in the fact that most leaders are not necessarily excellent judges of other people’s strengths. So, it is generally hard for someone to understand who is bringing the right set of perspectives in which area. How do you know that a male director you just hired understands female users? It is much easier to believe that hiring a woman will bring that perspective. All the noise about how Twitter has so many female users and hence desperately needs a woman on the board relate to exactly that!
It is true that it is often difficult for people to understand how their real users behave and what they need. The solution to this is not that they go find themselves a representative from each segment of their user population. First of all, there is no guarantee that a 40-year old woman can bring the perspective of a teenage girl. So, unless you got your segments exactly right, that would not be an ideal fit. Second, not only do you need the right perspectives from different user segments, you also need these people to be able to connect the dots together and create a cohesive strategy. Not to mention be able to identify user segments of future relevance.
The bottomline is that diversity in perspectives is what is most important and you need creative people who can understand that they are not necessarily the representative user, can understand the actual users and project their future wants and needs and equally critically, can work together!