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Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson On Why Talk Of “Lowering The Bar” Is Inherently Racist


Stashed in: Hiring, inequality, @meganrosedickey, Extraordinary People, Slack, Cognitive Bias

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Joelle's recommendation is to ask what they mean by "the bar".

MRD: Some people have said that you have to lower the bar in order to hire diverse people. Why is that the wrong thing to say?

Emerson: The way I would like to respond is ‘wow, that is an inherently racist and sexist thing to believe. If you think that we have to lower the bar to bring in people from different backgrounds, you’re saying that people from those backgrounds are less good.” That’s really scary to me, but I’ve found that type of response tends not to get people to engage in a discussion with me. So typically I’ll ask people to articulate a little more specifically ‘what is your bar, how are you assessing people against that bar?’ What I’ve found, when I’ve looked at most tech companies’ hiring processes, is that there really is no bar or the bar fluctuates depending on who it is that we’re interviewing and if we happen to like you and you came from a background similar to my own, maybe the bar is “here.” But if you haven’t really gone to a school that I’ve heard of or come from a company that I’ve worked for or know people who have worked there, I might have a slightly different bar because I might need you to prove yourself in a different way. So until companies can really tell me what their bar is, I think talking about lowering it or raising it is a weird conversation to even be having.

A friend of mine used to work at a large internet company, and one day I noticed something amazing about the composition of his group. There were three teams within this group: one composed almost entirely of people who had attended the same small set of schools in India, one composed entirely of people who had attended the same school in Moscow, and one composed entirely of people from the same state in the USA. I believe the group was 100% male too.

Everyone is a product of their own knowledge. I could not tell you the stack-rank of every campus of the Indian Institutes of Technology -- but I know a lot of people who can. When they see a resume that lists one of the IITs, that piece of information has an emotional resonance and depth for them that it totally lacks for me. The problem is that all of us FEEL the emotional resonance of "things I know and care about", but many of us misattribute it to THINKING. We think we're tapped in to some kind of absolute objective knowledge, when in fact we're just seeing the tiny part of the elephant's tail that we happen to have grabbed onto from accidents of birth.

I do this too! I know that I vastly prefer to hire people who have a liberal arts background rather than a computer science background -- because, guess what, I was inculcated with a lifetime of propaganda about it and an unusual proportion of the great devs I've worked with studied math in college. I also like female devs and I'm sure I'm guilty of all sorts of magical thinking about it. But I try not to go on stage and say that interviewing white heterosexual males is "lowering the bar" just because I haven't personally worked with very many great white heterosexual male CSS developers for instance.

I misattribute it to thinking. Thank you for helping me see that. 

Btw I think you will appreciate Brenda's comment on this page. 

Adam & Joyce, thank you so much for this conversation. It blew my mind that Moishe wrote this: "Can you imagine a female candidate, or a black candidate, with no college degree and a high school GPA of 2.0 getting an interview at Microsoft in 1994? At Google in 2005? I have a really hard time imagining that. I don’t know anyone who fits that mold, but I know plenty of white dudes with histories a lot like mine.

There were obvious biases in play that netted me interviews and jobs at those places – biases that basically let me get away with doing less work than most people, and far less work than people who aren’t playing with the settings on easy."

Most experienced people of color I know can point to a person who fit Moishe's profile in their current or past workplace and recount the myriad of ways that they or someone else had to account for or make up for what he didn't know (in education) or didn't do (in work output). Adding insult to injury, they also often watched that person be promoted over them or paid more. Sometimes, if they were especially bad at their job, the promotion might come faster to a middle level position that takes them out of the cross hairs of exposure from technical responsibility. If other staff made noise about it, they weren't being a team player. It doesn't take long for anger or resentment to build.

My solution when I encounter this is to challenge the person to be great. I was fortunate to attend college at an Ivy League school and encountered privileged people who were never asked to do anything, let alone strive for excellence. When you challenge someone to reach for the best in themselves and their work, you (and they) find out who they really are... and who they want to become.

"Today, Slack’s engineering department in the U.S. is 8.9% African-American, up from 7% in September. In technical roles, which include product, design, QA, engineering and technical account managers, 6.9% of Slack’s department is black. Company-wide in the U.S., Slack is 4.4% black. "

What I find interesting from Slack's report is how the number drops outside of the engineering department, which would mean that there is even less diversity in the other technical roles. I suspect if one were to take a look at design in most tech companies, the diversity stats are even more challenged and the cultural barrier to entry may even be higher in terms of the fictional "bar."

Hey Brenda, I appreciate your perspective! It is definitely a problem that companies have no standard definition of what "engineering", "technical", "leadership", "management" or "minority" mean. For instance this chart is lovely but misleading:

http://graphics.wsj.com/diversity-in-tech-companies/

because they are counting Asians in "minority" which I think most people in technology would not do.

Slack is trying to be more precise than normal but I think because they define things a little differently -- I certainly have never been in a company where design was considered "technical", although I have been in some where design is considered part of product -- they end up confusing people even more.

On the upside, engineering has normally been considered the department that future founders come out of, and the one with the most supposedly-objective standards, so in some ways it's good if it is more diverse than the norm. There was the stereotype that tech companies had all white males in eng and then made their numbers up by stuffing HR, marketing, and admin with women and under-represented minorities... so I guess there is more hope for the long run if that is not the situation.

Joyce, thanks for the graphic. Wow! When you drill down, you see that there is a distinct difference between just having people of color (including Asians) versus having people from under-represented groups.

I have been in a company or two (not in the Valley, which may be apropos of nothing) where design was considered technical, and even where the designers ran the show with engineers "working" for them. I do wonder, as code and coding become increasingly commoditized, if the place where future founders come from will still be engineering, or if it will be some other discipline. At the 20,000 foot perspective, I often think about how Silicon Valley today is not that dissimilar from Detroit when it was the 4th largest city in America. There are even companies that hold on to office anachronisms that were born from the assembly line era. Alvin Toffler's work on the future of the company comes to mind.

Great food for thought! Or munching on... as pandas do. 

When I read articles like this very inspiring one:

http://thenextweb.com/insider/2016/02/05/tinsel-founder-aniyia-williams-on-building-a-hardware-startup-from-scratch-while-pregnant/

I totally think you are right! I always tell people that building is nothing compared to deciding WHAT TO BUILD... and of course the real advantage engineers had in the past was that they were building things to sell to other engineers, which is decreasingly true.

Deciding what to build is so important. I learn that lesson over and over again.

Thank you for that article on Aniyia Williams, Joyce.

http://pandawhale.com/post/70468/how-tinsel-founder-aniyia-williams-built-a-hardware-startup-from-scratch-while-pregnant

"Building is nothing compared to deciding WHAT TO BUILD."

This is brilliant and succinct. There is a start up I advise who needs this message right now. Thank you!

Almost every startup needs this advice regularly, Brenda. :)

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