Diversity for Diversity’s Sake? – 9 Reasons We Want to Be Gender Diverse

Men and women working together on a software project.

We’ve been working for several years to improve the gender balance at Atomic Object, largely because we held “diversity is good” to be self-evident.

But the last six to nine months, as we’ve been changing out benefits and practices in pursuit of this goal, I’ve been thinking about why diversity is good.


This post is the first in a series about addressing unconscious bias and making Atomic a more rewarding place for everyone to work.

 

Diversity as a Sign of Liberty & Opportunity

On a societal or industry level, I don’t think of diversity as an end in itself, but as an indicator of liberty. If a place or profession is diverse, that means it can be capitalized on by anyone, regardless of gender, race, country of origin, age, etc. The opportunity is clearly open to everyone.

Our society places great value on an individual’s ability to make their own choices, on our inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Given how much of our lives we spend working, it’s hard to imagine achieving this goal if there are artificial constraints on which career we can choose.

The “natural” diversity of any given profession, absent of obstacles, is debatable. But I believe all professions are naturally attainable and of at least some interest to all groups of people.

Presuming there is no profession that’s uninteresting to or unachievable by any particular group of people, then a diverse workforce is an indicator that there are no artificial barriers in place in that  profession. But if a profession has very little diversity, that’s a likely indicator that there are limits on liberty.

Increasing everyone’s liberty to pursue a career of their choice also has economic benefits — creating market flexibility, greater productivity, and less waste from untapped talent. I think about this as labor market optimization.

The Benefits of Gender Diversity for Atomic

When I think of diversity within Atomic Object, I take a less abstract, more selfish view. From what I’ve seen and read, having a diverse group of employees creates greater a diversity of things like: perspective, insight, skill, style of communication, breadth of knowledge, approach to problem solving, working style, life experience, etc.—all of which result in several valuable outcomes for the company.

(A lot of the evidence below is about gender diversity. Read to the end of the post to learn why this is our current focus.)

  1. Diversity creates greater team intelligence.
    A researcher at the University of Michigan found that diversity improves the collective intelligence of a team. MIT researchers found that collective intelligence was linked to cooperation, and that effective cooperation was linked to the number of women in a group.
  2. Diversity leads to better decision making and more innovation.
    Studies suggest that some women and men differ dramatically when making decisions under stress; women improve their decision making while men worsen theirs. Creativity is improved through diversity of ideas and debate.
  3. Diversity brings better project results.
    Having gender-diversified teams means a greater range of end-user empathy. That helps us create more effective products. A more diverse team also tends to increase the domain knowledge available to the team.
  4. Diversity attracts a broader base of clients.
    Some clients care very deeply about diversity. They value and expect it in their partners. I’m guessing nearly everyone is more likely to buy from a vendor with whom they can easily identify.
  5. Diversity makes us more robust and resilient.
    When you can’t predict which challenges the market will throw at you, it’s safer to have a diverse group of people to respond to them. Diversity increases our likelihood of an effective response to a problem or opportunity. Diversity of personality is a strength. I see strong analogies to cities and natural ecosystems. Both are made strong and resilient through their diversity. Monoculture increases risk of failure.
  6. Diversity gives us a wider talent pool.
    Talent scarcity has been and looks to remain a key force in our industry. Anything that limits us from recruiting a certain group of people makes that problem worse. Having gender diversity in our company makes it easier to recruit from the small but growing pool of women developers and designers; not everyone would be comfortable working at a place where they are the only, or one of very few, women.
  7. Diversity brings a greater range of leadership style.
    This can increase the robustness of the company, as different situations, people, and positions require different approaches. It’s speculated that the correlation between women on corporate boards and above average financial returns is attributable to different leadership styles and decision making.
  8. Diversity leads to better financial results.
    Companies with greater gender diversity do better financially. A study by a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago found gender diversity was correlated with increased sales and more customers. McKinsey found gender and racial diversity correlated with above-average financial returns.
  9. Diversity creates a more interesting workplace.
    In addition to the positive outcomes above, my personal belief is that diversity makes our company a more interesting place to work. I really enjoy the variety of hobbies, conversations, experiences, dress, styles, and knowledge that company diversity creates. It’s also a positive feedback loop, as interesting people attract more interesting people. In times of talent scarcity, this should be a competitive advantage.

    “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” –James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

In sum, I value a diverse workforce because it makes my company stronger, more interesting, more likely to succeed in the short-term, and more likely to survive for the long-term.

Facing the Costs of Diversity

We cultivate diversity to make the company better, but it doesn’t necessarily make our lives easier. It brings a broader range of priorities, which will often conflict. It means we have to take more time to explain our perspective to people who don’t share it. It demands we have better listening skills and more empathy to understand other people’s perspectives. And it often leads to more debate, questioning, negotiation, and compromise.

This is hard work, and it means solutions can take longer to agree on. But if we’re willing to pay that cost, our solutions will be better and we will be better, with more insight into ourselves and a better understanding of the world. In addition, doing this work of listening, understanding, and explaining will build the muscles we need to be successful consultants and innovators.

gender-diversity

Our Current Priority: Gender Diversity

There are many dimensions of human diversity that result in a greater range of desirable attributes. At the very least, diversity in skills and styles may come from diversity in age, gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, national origin, career experience, religion, education, and family background. And I’m no doubt missing some other legitimate dimensions.

From society’s perspective, all of these dimensions of diversity are useful and equally valuable measures of achieving greater liberty and therefore economic and individual benefits. Whether a profession is closed to people of a certain race, or people of a certain gender, or a certain religion, doesn’t matter. All of those situations are equally wrong; liberty will have been curtailed, and our society will be made poorer.

From a narrow company perspective, I think focusing first on a single dimension of diversity is most effective. The dimension of diversity we focus on in our company is gender. 1

Why gender diversity first?

We choose to work on increasing our gender diversity because I believe it’s the dimension of diversity that we stand to benefit from the most. Gender is based on biology and culture. These are powerful forces that create significant differences between people in ways that make a difference to our business. It’s also a dimension that splits the world more or less in halves. While I agree that the many other dimensions of diversity have an influence on people that can contribute to our company, I think gender diversity gives us the most benefit today.

For the many dimensions of diversity that we don’t actively focus on, it’s important to note that we are welcoming and non-discriminating. We’ll happily hire anyone who can help us achieve our mission. When we have an opportunity, we sometimes support programs that are aimed at other dimensions of diversity. But they aren’t our focus right now.

The low participation rate of women in software development indicates a curtailment of liberty, in my opinion. But becoming a more gender-balanced company is difficult when the most common job in our company is software developer, and women comprise less than 20% of computer science graduates.

I’m hoping that our focus and special efforts will get us to a point where we have a good, self-maintaining gender balance. I see signs that this is happening. If we reach that goal, we won’t need to focus on this particular issue forever.

AO-Gender-Diversity

Though we’ve come a long way in 10 years, as the chart above shows, we’re not satisfied with the status quo. We continue to contribute to solving the societal problem of a gender imbalance in software, as well as working to improve our own gender diversity, especially within software development and design.

What are we doing about it?

1. Encouraging women and girls to consider software

For the last 5+ years, we’ve supported groups working to increase the participation of women in computer science, programming, and software design, by supplying them with money, expertise, and places to meet. These are contributions to the societal problem; we don’t expect a direct return on our investment when it comes to our company’s gender balance.

2. Seeking out female candidates

While our standards for male and female hires are identical, we actively recruit women—making extra efforts to encourage them to apply, and fully investigating their abilities and experience (going beyond the resume if necessary). We also support part-time employment for people who want to both work and raise children, and craft creative plans for women who are returning to the field after focusing on raising children. We’ve been doing these things for years.

3. Becoming a more rewarding place to work

Inspired by some new voices in the company, we took time in 2015 to review our benefits and policies and made some changes we hope will make us an even more attractive place for women to work. These changes include more generous parental leave, modifying our operating agreement to allow for part-time employee shareholders, reviewing and modifying the language in our hiring artifacts, changing how people get raises, and formally recognizing Mary O’Neill’s long-standing, de-facto leadership role in the company.

4. Talking about why it matters

As I said in a recent blog post:

“On this issue, it’s not enough to be a company that doesn’t discriminate, and which welcomes and treats everyone respectfully. We’ve been all those things from our founding in 2001. What we haven’t done well in the past is to be explicit and clear about our values and behaviors.”

That post, our updated diversity page, and this blog series are an attempt to change that—to talk explicitly and clearly about how much we want a variety of voices and perspectives at Atomic. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing how we’ve been working toward liberty and diversity. I hope you join us.

A version of this post was previously published on Great Not Big (my personal blog) as “Gender diversity makes my company stronger”.


1. For the purposes of tracking our progress, we simplify the world into the gender binary of “men” and “women.” I realize this simplification isn’t an accurate model of the real world, and while I don’t like the disenfranchisement it represents, I think it’s a pragmatic approach to the business problem we’re working on and want to measure.