The bottom line: Diversity is — and should be — good for business.

By Dylan Tweney

VentureBeat, October 29, 2015 — Too often diversity discussions in business are framed as a zero-sum game: affirmative action versus meritocracy, minority versus majority, them versus us.

There are some hopeful signs that the tech industry is starting to realize that this is not the case. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon — among others — have all made a point of releasing their diversity numbers, at least insofar as diversity means “gender and ethnicity,” and have done so for two years in a row now, so we can see how little things are improving. At least they recognize it’s a problem.
More significantly, these companies are releasing this data without apology, and with a frank recognition that diversity is a goal worth striving for. It makes companies smarter, it makes them more sensitive to the needs of a diverse customer base, and it’s the right thing to do.

Above: Studies show that diversity improves performance of human teams. Not sure about beach huts, though. Image Credit: Tom Eversley

But, as anyone who writes about the topic will discover in the comments on social media about their work, there’s still a sizable contingent of people who believe that companies need to lower their standards in order to increase the diversity of their work forces.

Not so, says Joelle Emerson, the founder of a relatively new agency called Paradigm that applies data-driven social-science techniques to the challenge of helping companies increase their diversity and manage more diverse workforces more effectively. Clients include Slack, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Udacity.

In fact, Emerson said, numerous studies show that diverse teams are more innovative and better at solving problems than teams where everyone shares the same background, race, or gender.

I spoke with Emerson at a discussion on diversity earlier this week at Draper University. Incidentally, Draper was a great venue for this chat. Every time I’ve visited Draper University I’ve been impressed by the diversity of the students (they are truly a global, multiethnic, mixed-gender group) as well as their infectious enthusiasm, curiosity, and seriousness of purpose. They ask great questions, too, and they are unfailingly welcoming and polite, which is something you don’t always encounter in Silicon Valley. Say what you will about Draper’s goofy “hero” iconography, they are doing something right in this department.

So if diverse teams produce better results, why not just focus on results, and let the diverse teams shine through their own merits?

Actually, Emerson told me, at least one study has shown that the more meritocratic people try to be, the less meritocratic their hiring and promotion decisions actually are. In other words, people are more likely to give big raises to men and small raises to women if they’re told to base their decisions exclusively on meritocratic principles. It’s a phenomenon known as the paradox of meritocracy.

You can see that dynamic at work in Silicon Valley, where investors pride themselves on their “pattern matching” and “data driven” decision making, but still somehow overwhelmingly prefer to invest in founders that look like them. When VCs are 91.8 percent male and 77.5 percent white, that’s a problem.

So if companies want to be truly meritocratic, they need to take steps to make more objective hiring and promotion decisions. That should result in better business performance — and more diversity at the same time, since it will eliminate built-in biases.

One such technique is the blind audition, which I’ve written about before. In symphony orchestras where people audition for jobs from behind concealing screens, hiring managers are forced to pay attention to the only thing that really matters: how well the person plays their instrument. Similarly, blind auditions in a tech company can help managers focus on the work a person can actually do, such as writing or coding, rather than on their look or their self-presentation.

I’ve used blind auditions, with reasonably good results, in hiring journalists. I will say this, however: If you’re forced to focus only on the work, it does make the hiring process more laborious, because you actually have to read every work sample very carefully. But there’s no doubt that leads to fairer decisions.

Emerson herself has a handful of recommendations in a smart article on raising the bar in hiring. Her basic thesis: If you fix your hiring process, you’ll wind up with employees who are both more diverse and more talented. She recommends doing that by democratizing the job application process (for instance, by eliminating the advantages that certain groups have thanks to training on how to interview); focusing on job-related skills; and retuning your “culture fit” questions around aspects of culture that really matter, such as “would I enjoy working with this person?” rather than “would I hang out with this person after work hours?”

This being Silicon Valley, there are a number of startups aimed at helping tech companies with their diversity efforts (in addition to Emerson’s Paradigm). Gapjumpers helps companies conduct blind auditions for more objective recruiting. Textio uses AI and natural language analysis to improve the text of job listings, removing words that might discourage women or other diverse applicants. And Jopwell helps connect black, Latino, and Native American job candidates with companies that want to hire them.

The bottom line: Diversity is — and should be — good for business. Smart companies will embrace this approach and make themselves not only more inclusive, but higher functioning.

For more on these issues, follow VentureBeat’s collections of stories on diversity, gender, and race. Check out this list of useful links on diversity (mostly from Emerson) that I compiled after my talk with her. And please let me know how your company is — or isn’t — tackling diversity in tech.