Tech’s diversity problem can’t be solved overnight—and it shouldn’t be

Slow and steady wins the race.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Image: REUTERS/Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
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Over the last several years, almost every tech company has made a commitment to increasing its diversity numbers. As an industry, we’ve hired chief diversity officers, set ambitious goals, and begun disclosing our progress.

The numbers, meanwhile, have barely budged. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the doomsday scenario it is often portrayed to be. Lack of diversity is a problem that can’t be solved overnight—and it shouldn’t be.

While diversity and inclusion are top of mind today, the “fix it fast” world of tech is quick to move onto the next problem. Instead of trying to check a problem off of a list, technology companies need to carefully craft an inclusive culture. When it comes down to it, if you want to make long-term progress, that won’t cut it.

Culture change is slow. It includes things like the overall policies, behaviors, and voice of the company. To change any of those things, mainly the latter two, you’re going to need some time. Moving slow and fixing things is not what tech companies are known for. When it comes to culture change, there’s plenty that tech can learn from other industries about slowing down.

When I was a lawyer at a large firm in Australia, trying to create any change was slow. The attitude at the time was let’s keep doing what we’re doing because we’ve always done it. Pretty different to tech.

However, the legal industry has been thinking about diversity for a long time (primarily gender). During my tenure, while more women than men were entering the legal profession as graduates, our representation in leadership positions was poor. When my firm committed to a greater representation of women in senior and partner roles, they set a timeline of four years.

While modest, my firm’s goal was realistic. They knew that while some things about the culture had to change to remove barriers for women already at the firm, some good aspects of the culture had to remain. Figuring out how to walk this line authentically takes time.

Of course, lawyers tend to drag things out. But the valuable lesson here is that tech companies can address these sort of problems without losing their cultural identity.

When it comes to dealing with overwhelmingly complex issues like diversity and inclusion or culture change, tech has a knack for problem-solving.

Rather than getting hung up on creating new systems and processes to track the moving target of D&I, techniques that are already widespread in tech can be applied to move culture in the right direction. Product design is a great example. “Design thinking,” which has become as buzzy a phrase as “diversity and inclusion,” is an experimental problem-solving process that allows teams to try things and then fail quickly and safely.

Design thinking is about identifying a pain point, thinking about how to solve that pain point, and then trying a bunch of stuff to learn more. In its essence, it’s about embracing a clumsy process that prioritizes the ability to find the true north of product features continuously.

Sounds perfect, right?

Diversity and inclusion are some of the clumsiest issues out there. We barely have the vocabulary to talk about them without unintentionally causing offense. Applying the same approach for designing and building products to culture across the industry could be a game changer.

Jessica Harvie leads diversity and inclusion efforts at Justworks.