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Why Diversity Matters

How diversity drives innovation, and why we're failing at it.


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Vish Chopra

3 years ago | 8 min read

People wear different faces for different people they meet, and they are faces we choose not to recognise.

Human behaviour is a complex subject, as a researcher and innovator I spend most of my time understanding the behaviours of people in different environments and situations, trying to capture and understand commonalities and idiosyncrasies.

When conducting user research, we usually operate within a lower psychological realm, analysing the behaviours of individuals or groups at a conscious level. “I want the latest iPhone”, “I don’t like to share my data”, “I have to have services built around my immediate needs”. And on another level, we sometimes try and understand the incomprehensible complexities of the subconscious. Colour schemes we admire, or hate, the blend of coffee we purchase. The rationale for soothing our anxieties of professional success.

People are human, and to err is human, afterall. Except it’s not. To err is 50% conscious decision making, and 50% embedded decision making based on past experiences. You consciously err 50% of the time. The other 50%? They’re the faces you never see.

Diversity is a term that we all know about. We’re aware of the programs at work that bring people of colour and difference into our offices, we’ve sat through workplace discrimination training, we listen to Jay Z. If I was to summarise the meaning of diversity, most of you would agree that at a basic level it means accepting people of colour, race/ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation within the workplace, free from judgment or discrimination. This indeed is diversity today, where workplace initiatives are aimed at catapulting marginalised talent from minority groups, where we all sign up to a Diversity & Inclusion pledge to help a handful (if they’re lucky) of coloured, female or gay individuals rise to management.

In reality, these scenarios never materialise. In most cases such workplace initiatives only see success in promoting diverse talent to employee status, levelled off with other hires and (white) workers, and stamp checked as an exercise completed as part of a company’s legal commitments. The Design Industry is no exception, how many exec’s in consultancies or leaders of design departments are people of colour? Are gay, trans? Are even women?

People often ask me about the future of diversity and its impact on business. I say, take the first step before you think about running.

The Power of Diverse Thinking

I was asked recently by a friend to join a panel discussion on Diversity in Design, the aim was to invite people of colour from the industry on to a live podcast to discuss their stories and how the industry could change to become more representative. My heart sank when I quickly realised that I (as a British South Asian in the design industry) have a majority white network. 96% of my network is white. How could I help find panellists?

It struck me that there are only 18 people I’ve professionally met in my industry over the last 5 years who are not white. 11 of them were women, 1 was Black, 0 were Trans. 18 people. How many people have you met in the last 5 years?

And this brings up an important point, how successful can a business be if they’re placing all their eggs in one basket? Common investing advice is to ‘diversify’ after all. Most successful companies have multiple products and services, divisions in a portfolio. Their businesses are structurally diverse to reduce risk of failure or loss — another common question I get asked (how to reduce risk in innovation) — so why is the same theory not applied to the most fundamental asset of an organisation, its people?

Here’s the truth, if you want to reduce the risk of innovation use the mantra of design thinking — go out and talk to people you’re designing for, understand their needs, and how your product or service fulfills that need. Then, come back and test and hypothesise your findings with a team of individuals that are representative of the market you’re designing for. You can only learn so much about people and their cultural or personal idiosyncrasies from empathy, you need to compensate by having representatives of that culture inside the decision making process. In practice, this means hiring within the first hurdle of diversity — ethnicity. We do this already, but not very well.

If you’ve ever designed a product or service, you’ll probably know that it is going to be used in vastly different ways to how you expect. An Indian woman in Bradford is going to use a telehealth app in a completely different way than James from Cambridge, and not just because they’re physiological and socioeconomic needs are different. There’s a cultural paradigm to understand, how individual cultures view and place value on different things, how they engage with it, why, how and what their expectations of a good outcome are. It’s vastly complex.

How is a team of mostly white individuals going to ever understand those cultural nuances? In half the user research activities I’ve been involved with, the participants are not wholly representative of the end market that will use the product. And remember, empathy only gets you so far. So when you consider the output of this, it means putting a subpar product on the market, designed for and by a particular group of people. It’s limiting the product’s success. Think, for example, that the world is designed for men, by men.

Any company or team that has designed for an international market will understand that you can’t apply the same principles of the domestic market to other countries. Even those working on projects in adjacent countries (British designers designing products for the EU) understand this. Each market has its own cultural nuance, and you need to adapt your approach and end result to cater for that. So why are we only applying it externally? Those same markets exist in the UK, as diasporas, mini-markets — and their culture and idiosyncrasies aren’t wholly different to their country of origin. We live in a multicultural society, so why are we only designing for one?

Getting Diversity Right

How do you fix a problem like this as an employer? I’ve heard some compelling and heartbreaking accounts from recruiters and HR leaders about how powerless they actually are, and how self reinforcing diversity programs can be when there’s simply a lack of diverse talent. One design industry recruiter recently highlighted that it begins at education level — he couldn’t find and place any BAME talent because there’s hardly anyone from those backgrounds in the industry. This is dangerous. Not only for the BAME individuals let down by the education system, but for other stakeholders in the process.

Yet here’s an olive branch — I’ve also heard countless stories from frontline HR of white employees being passed over for jobs for BAME talent because either it’s been the first BAME applicant for a while, or because the HR department has a remit to fulfill a ‘quota’. This is just awful. The white employee who by merit could have been promoted gets passed over, the BAME individual gets hired because of their skin colour, and the business reinforces unfair racial advantage. How is that any better than the injustice we’re trying to solve of white privilege in the workplace?

The problem has been that Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) in most organisations are partnered with marketing and outward-facing HR. It’s public facing. It’s about public perception and affiliation to a cause (think all the pride flags on company logos in June, yet the inaction of those organisations to promote social change in the LGBTQ+ community), and fulfilling legal duties enshrined in law.

What we really need to do is to turn the system on its head. Firstly to stop calling it Inclusion, and call it what it is — Representation. Lets build ‘Representative’ initiatives as part of a company’s mission to be innovative. Then it becomes part of a value system, you’re saying “our ideas can only be as novel as our human capital”.

But how do you fulfill this commitment? Here are a few ideas:

  • Start Valuing Difference — Hire people who think differently than you. Build a team that challenges but respects each other.
  • Go younger — Talk to children about your industry, why it’s worth investing in. Focus your attention on the house that’s burning and target your outreach where it’s most needed. Programs for Black or Asian youth at early development stages are proven to change their perceptions of different careers and social pillars.
  • Blind Recruitment — No faces, no names, just focus on their credentials. The quickest method for ensuring a level playing field.
  • Lobby for Change — Highlight your injustice. A business starved of diverse talent because of inadequacies in the education system is a drag on economic and social growth.
  • Question your own bias — Everyone has them. Ask yourself why you have them, what caused it? Challenge yourself to overcome them.

Challenging Privilege

One thing that I’ve learned from BLM is how polarising the subject of racism is. I truly feel it’s the new Brexit in that respect. For countless weeks I’ve seen post after post on LinkedIn and Instagram from recruiters, designers, friends and colleagues about their personal struggle with understanding why race is still something we’re talking about.

Amongst the obvious, common threads have included race-specific hiring, Black or Asian experiences, statistics both for and against the existence of systemic racism. While my support for these posts have been mixed, I resolutely disassociate myself with the comments on each post. “I don’t see colour”, “I struggled to find a job too”, “I hire based on merit”, “All Lives Matter”.

Who would’ve thought a fight for equality would be so polarising? And who would have thought LinkedIn could be an outlet for people’s personal opinions? Like Brexit, such commentary makes you wonder about the person you’re connected to, and how different their version of society is to yours.

One of the arguments it boils down to is the difference of perspective people have toward white privilege, and usually the split is unfortunately down ethnic lines. Those who have experienced it versus those who are oblivious — either they don’t agree it’s real, or that problems of minorities are often rooted in the community itself.

Here’s my take on it:

White privelege: It’s not that your whiteness opens any particular doors for you, it means not having any doors closed on you.

Ask the story of any successful person of colour and you’ll hear how much harder they had to work, how much more effort has to be given just to be taken seriously. Think of it as a foundation degree, you have another step to climb before you arrive at the level playing field. Add this to the frequent vilification of ethnic minorities and BAME in the media, the perpetual existence of an air of ‘us versus them’ mentality and a polity of hate in society and politics. These acts only go to underscore distrust and apprehension of other people, and it of course gets reflected in the workplace.

So how do you challenge privilege?

Call it out. The simple message of BLM and the wider, emerging race relations debate is that the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the workplace is unbalanced. Too many at lower levels of authority, too much concentration on low-skilled work, not enough opportunities for growth. There is too little value placed on our contribution.

Level this up, and you’ve solved the problem.

For more on Diversity in the Workplace, listen to my podcast with Design Truth.

Apple: https://lnkd.in/gpkrXxG

Spotify: https://lnkd.in/gwz5kY4

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