When Diversity Isn’t

Diversity. Companies want it.

A lot of companies are keen on diversity at the moment. There’s a lot of discussion about how company performance benefits from having the ability to hire the best from any group, about how diversity helps to avoid groupthink, and so forth. A lot of companies are putting significant effort into hiring and trying to retain people from minorities or under-represented groups. They’re really trying, and they’re sinking a lot of money into it. It’s all very praiseworthy and a big step in the right direction.

Here’s why I don’t think it’s working.

First, some background. I’ve had research quoted to me (I can’t find the link, but if anyone posts me the details I’ll add it) that, excluding cases of discrimination, gay employees who are “out” have better career progression that those in the closet. Basically, not having to pretend all the time makes it easier to have a fulfilling career. Makes sense, right?

Of course, that applies to gay employees, who have the choice whether to be out or not. For women or black employees, they have no choice about revealing who they are, right?


Sure, everyone knows that they’re women, or that they’re black. But in a million small ways, every day, we’re made to pretend we’re not. To act just like the typical company white guy. Don’t show emotion. Be competitive/aggressive. Use ‘business’ english. Use the ‘right’ ‘professional’ words and phrases. Promote yourself and your successes. Speak up in meetings, be heard. Show that you want promotion; ask for advancement. Don’t understate your abilities. Apply for promotions when a guy would, not when you feel ready. Build functional networks not friendship groups. Make sure you’re showing your expertise (usually by winning arguments/discussions). Be assertive. Be direct; avoid polite phrases that men wouldn’t use. Win, win, win.

In other words, pretend to be someone you’re not.

Now, none of these things are that hard, in themselves. I can do them. Every single one is doable. You learn the behaviours, you practice them until you get good at it, you carry on. Let’s be honest, guys, this stuff isn’t rocket science.

But there are two costs. Firstly, you’re behaving in a way that’s not natural to you. It takes effort. The more perfect the pretence has to be, the more effort it takes. As you progress up the career ladder, more and more of your energy and effort is going to maintain this facade. The more like the stereotype you are naturally, the less the ‘cost’ of fitting it. The further away, the more you have to pretend, the higher the cost. But everyone is probably paying a bit. Worse, you probably don’t even realise. You’ve automated these behaviours, and you just wonder why you’re tired and can’t seem to achieve as much, and work isn’t fun any more.

Aside: Yes, I know white men feel like this too. Because (gasp) white men are diverse too. There are few men who are exactly like the stereotype, and everyone else is pretending too. So if you’re a white man reading this and thinking “I feel like that too, it’s just work, why is she complaining?” the answer is: (a) because I’m probably having to pretend more than you, and (b) because if you support true diversity for me, you’ll help yourself too. If I’m allowed to be me, then you’re allowed to be you. Wouldn’t you like that?

So, what companies are providing, in many cases, isn’t true diversity. It’s more of the same. You can have any gender, ethnicity, religion if you behave just like me.

And of course, here’s the real joke. This kind of diversity – fake diversity, skin-deep diversity – won’t achieve the diversity gains the companies are hoping for anyway. You won’t avoid groupthink if you make everyone think the same. You won’t improve innovation if you exclude anyone who thinks differently.

I wanted to end on a positive note, but I just can’t think of one now. I’m tired and cross. I assume that this will work its way through, and fail, and people will learn from the experience. I assume (hope) that one day we’ll end up with real diversity. I suspect it’ll be after my career is over, but maybe my son will benefit. Or maybe his children.

I just wish there was a way to make this work quicker. Because right now, I’m watching most of the women in my generation, just like my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations, getting written off. Wasting their potential. And it hurts.