What makes DEI important and where it fails
I love internet arguments. I've never seen people go at each other so intensely about such small things. It makes it even better that usually the two parties are actually arguing in favor the same thing, but are unable to realize it. It's almost like short-form text chat isn't the best method of communication for complex topics.
I bring this up because I find it fascinating, but also because this difficult form of communication has become the default way many receive their information. As you can imagine, this causes many issues. This has been super evident in one of the most recent online hot topics: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Seemingly, the entire X community is set on bringing down DEI initiatives largely due to the misunderstandings and absolutism that online text chat creates.
Why I'm Writing About This
DEI is one of the most important societal initiatives we have and will only become more important as time goes on. Before you click away from this because you think you disagree with that statement, stay for a minute and read. A little clarity will likely show that we share the same opinion.
Most of you reading this are indie hackers, entrepreneurs, and people involved in AI. Your understanding of DEI and why it’s important is the most crucial because you'll be driving it forward in the future. The way you approach DEI will determine whether it will uplift our society or tear it down.
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The Foundation of DEI
Over time, the purpose of DEI has been warped. DEI should never be defined by a quota. In fact, creating a DEI quota entirely defeats what makes DEI work. The simplest way DEI initiatives can be put was spoken by John Carmack when answering a question about Oculus's clear gender bias toward male employees. He said: "We're having a hard time hiring all the people that we want; it doesn't matter what they look like". I'll take this a step further and add "or where they come from".
It is a well-studied and widely accepted fact that a diverse workforce is a benefit to any company. McKinsey has released three different reports showcasing the direct benefits of diversity in the workplace (here, here, and here). Harvard has done their own diversity study and many others as showcased here. With regard to AI, here’s an article about how a lack of diversity in those building AI can create implicit bias within it.
The importance of diversity was heavily emphasized to me when I joined Google. Google makes an effort to learn from its previous mistakes and it works because this example in particular has stuck with me. If one sight-impaired person had worked on the Google apps at that point, Google would have known to make them more accessible.
To be clear: I don't think most people debating DEI on X doubt the benefits of diversity, but I wanted to make sure they were made clear because it’s the foundation for why proper DEI initiatives are important.
The True Role of DEI Initiatives
The goal of DEI is to create a better workforce. It's a recognition that an individual's experience is valuable to solving problems and that every individual's experiences are different. It's also a recognition that many individuals are difficult to place in positions where their experience is needed due to factors often outside of their control. DEI initiatives are an attempt to reach those individuals and mitigate those factors.
As you can imagine, this isn't an easy task. These factors, especially socioeconomic, are impossible to entirely fix. Currently, companies mitigate them by casting a wider hiring net to reach the unique experience they're looking for. They do this by creating recruiting paths to find individuals with a background differing from candidates they typically see. In my opinion, this is a good short-term solution, but can go wrong.
Where DEI Can Go Wrong
DEI at some (not all) companies and organizations has become less about finding the best people for the job no matter what they look like and more about filling a quota. This, ironically, often excludes the best people for the job instead of finding them. Those arguing to remove DEI initiatives are fighting quota-filling and, while I think removing the initiative entirely is foolish, I agree with their premise.
I'm not certain where the idea of setting a quota for DEI came from. My guess is companies like actionable metrics and a quota quantifies the DEI initiative. If the quota is hit, DEI was successful. If not, it wasn't. In actuality, a quota tells a company nothing about the success of a DEI initiative and instead hinders its chances of success while proclaiming to be successful at the same time.
In truth, there are so many aspects to diversity and so many factors that go into whether a candidate is "the best" that setting a DEI quota is impossible. That's why we've seen many DEI initiatives fail. These initiatives generally set a quota for a factor (such as race) when the valuable experience employers are looking for is tied to much more than that factor. In an ironic twist, filling a DEI quota via race turns an initiative that would otherwise help solve racism, racist.
How Should DEI Work?
We need a better education system. DEI shouldn't happen at hiring time—companies shouldn't have to pull "diversity candidates" from "another pool" of talent. They should be part of the "main pool" with everyone else right from the start. This is enabled by making education work for everyone. Giving everyone access to a great education creates an equality of opportunity. This is beneficial to individuals, companies, and society.
This is an incredibly difficult, time-consuming solution that will take time to implement. It requires cooperation from companies, legislators, and citizens—something we've all proven terrible at. Much like those in the online debates mentioned above, companies and legislators tend to find themselves on the opposite side of a problem while fighting for the same solution.
In the short-term, casting a wider hiring net is a quick way of finding talent that would otherwise be overlooked. This is absolutely critical for finding the best people for a job. But mixing DEI into the hiring process is prone to pitfalls (such as hiring quotas) and can put DEI initiatives in a bad light.
In my opinion, the further DEI gets from the hiring process, the better for everyone involved.
What This Means For You
I believe DEI initiatives are incredibly important for society but must be done right. I’ve been privileged to work for two different companies approaching DEI from the right perspective and I’ve seen the benefit it has.
I fear the online debates will lead to an absolutist stance of no DEI initiatives and we'll all suffer because of it. I wrote this to clear up the actual state of DEI initiatives— something that requires more than 260 characters— hoping to showcase that those against DEI and those for it are actually fighting for the same thing.
More importantly, I want the people who will be driving DEI initiatives forward in the future (that’s you!) to do so properly.
If you'd like further reading on the subject I highly recommend Tech and Fish: What does DEI have to do with Tech Ethics? by.
Let me know if you agree in the comments.
Society's Backend Will Start Setting Goals Together
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