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My professional network was weaker because it lacked diversity. A simple change helped me fix it

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AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Diversity is something you have to actively work for.
By Khe Hy
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

I’ve always thought diversity was a good thing. But a few years ago, I took a look at my social and professional circles and realized that I was surrounded by people who were a lot like me.

I’m an Asian-American (and one-quarter French) man in my 30s who grew up in a middle-class home. I went to Yale, which had a lot of people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Then I worked at a few big companieswhich hired a lot of high-achieving people from schools like mine. I’ve spent most of my career in finance, and more recently in tech and media. And finance and tech in particular are industries that skew toward white and Asian men. So as I go about my days, I’m generally more likely to meet, socialize, and be introduced to more people within that sub-group.

A lot of people have this problem. We know our relationships with people with perspectives that are unlike our own will enrich our personal lives. We know that employees from backgrounds that give them different world views make our workplaces more innovative. We know that our thinking becomes more versatile and expansive when people with disparate ideas contribute. And yet tribalism makes us gravitate to people who are similar to us, which results in self-reinforcing behavior. And so we still have industries that are extremely homogenous, as seen in board rooms to venture capitalists’ portfolio companies to investment firms and Hollywood directors.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a diverse social circle wasn’t just going to happen naturally. I needed to make it a priority—and find a way to break the cycle.

First, I wanted to get a concrete sense of how diverse my personal network was. I decided to start by focusing on gender diversity. I’d already been using a spreadsheet to keep track of the people I networked withwith the goal of being able to introduce people with similar professional interests or hobbies. When I looked back on the 596 people I’d networked with over the course of two years, I found that an overwhelming 81% of them had been men.

This meant that if I continued my ordinary routines and activities, my personal network would likely continue to be comprised of 81% men. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. Then I remembered a quote from Peter Drucker, the famous management thinker: “What gets measured, gets mastered.”

There’s a related concept in psychology known as the “observer effect,” which explains that a person is more likely to modify their behavior if they are aware that they are being monitored. This reminded me of the (brief) time when I owned a FitBit and was counting the number of steps I took each day. Just knowing that I was tracking my movement led me to modify my behavior. When confronted with the choice of an escalator or some stairs, I would pick the latter, since I was being held accountable by this piece of technology.

And so I began to monitor the gender diversity of my meetings. It was a far cry from a true metric of diversity, but a good starting point for this personal experiment.

I coordinated my calendars so that every time I scheduled a meeting on my personal calendar, it would show up on a Google spreadsheet. Then, on a monthly basis, I’d review the meetings, dismiss all friendly gatherings, and note the participant’s gender. I plotted and observed the male-to-female ratio over time (and for extra accountability, tweeted it to see how it would evolve.

Explicitly, my behavior didn’t change much. But if I noticed a heavy wave of meetings with “finance bros,” I might space them out to try to make more room for meetings with women, or even take a pause to keep the pipeline balanced.

I became much more attuned to a few of my own biases. Some of my “meetings” consisted of inviting people to participate in Crossfit-style workouts in public parks (aka “sweatworking”), which tended to involve more men than women. To offset this bias, I’d have to actively pursue more meetings with women or cut back on sweatworking. I did a bit of both.

I also found that when I delayed meetings with men, they generally tended to be much more aggressive in following-up and staying “top of mind.” Once I became aware of this, I was able to carefully monitor the pipeline of forthcoming meetings—otherwise, my network would naturally drift toward men again.

The project nudged me to change my behavior in other ways, too. A simple one was asking more of my female friends if they knew of any “connectors”—people with far-reaching networks who tend to drive many future introductions. And when I received requests to mentor younger professionals, I deliberately tried to skew toward women and people of color.

At the end of the year, I had conducted 307 meetings, of which 57% of my meetings were with men.

This represented a 24% improvement from my “steady state” for the two-year period prior. More importantly, I now have a new baseline to work from. As my network becomes more gender balanced, I get introduced to more women organically. The number of meetings I have with men versus women is more likely to stay around the 57%-43% balance, or even drift toward parity.

Empirically, I have proof of the ways that the added gender diversity percolated into various aspects of my life. My weekly newsletter now features many more female writers. The networking events I host also reflect the new ratio in attendees. And I’ve made three personal investments in female-founded companies.

I’m optimistic that one simple observation could have such an exponential impact. Going forward, I’m planning to be similarly scrupulous about actively seeking out a network that is racially, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse. And I’m eager to keep challenging myself and my peers about the embedded biases within our own networks.


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