Debunking diversity and inclusion myths in Big Tech

I recently stumbled upon a rather controversial post written by a former manager who worked at Microsoft’s AI Platform division from 2021 to 2022. The post defended the thesis that merit is undermined by diversity and inclusion efforts at Big Tech companies. The writer used factual information and sadly twisted it until it matched his false narrative. So today I’m going to dissect his article and explain how this person totally missed the point of all the training he received. Buckle up, because this is going to be a bumpy ride.

The author –Jason hereafter– started by explaining that he published his post under a pseudonym because he feared he would be fired or that many companies would refuse to hire him for writing it. I am using my real name because if any company refuses to hire me for writing this, I won’t want to work for them anyway. My name is Ivan; I have been an Engineering Manager for 7 years so far and I have worked at several Big Tech companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Google.

Jason proceeds to set the stage with factual data on Microsoft’s public commitment to racial equity and, more generally, to Diversity and Inclusion –D&I moving forward–. The data itself is, as Jason puts it, not a secret, and most Big Tech companies have similar goals. Then, he describes Microsoft’s approach to achieve those goals, so let’s break it down with the same structure of his article.

Part 1: D&I Must be a Core Priority of Every Employee

Jason describes how Microsoft handles performance reviews with its employees, a process called “Connect”. He shares a limited view of the guidelines for completing a Connect, enough to fit his false narrative: impact doesn’t matter, only D&I does.

If less familiar readers might have found it difficult to detect red flags on Jason’s article up until this point, the next sentences describing his reaction to the Connect guidelines are intrinsically problematic:

“When I initially saw this, I thought I would just write something anodyne and get back to focusing on producing great software for our users. But I soon learned that there was more to Microsoft’s commitment to D&I than making me write some text that was only visible to my manager every few months.”

In the quote above, Jason explicitly admitted that he doesn’t care about one of his company’s core priorities, and he was also surprised when he discovered that just giving the appearance of caring –without actual contributions– was not enough. How a manager can be surprised that a core commitment cannot be met by just writing some text and without doing any real work, is beyond me.

Someone above him must have told him, because then Jason lists three ways of having D&I contributions: hire, promote and educate.

Part 2: “Diverse” Candidates are Preferred During Hiring and Promotion

The intersection of D&I and recruiting efforts is often misrepresented. Jason perpetuates the fallacy that “a diverse candidate is preferred above the best candidate”. And then he uses factual data to defend that false statement: asking hiring managers to consider at least N candidates from marginalized communities in tech before making a decision is not at all the same as asking them to ignore the best candidate. Instead, that policy has the same objective as asking them to wait until they have reviewed M candidates before making a decision: minimizing biases and maximizing the chance of finding the best possible candidate for the position. A diverse candidate can be the best candidate, and Jason is ignoring that fact.

Jason says that he had to wait for months waiting for a single person who fulfilled the D&I recruiting policies. But let’s look at the data: “discrimination is an important factor in why African Americans do poorly in the labor market. White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. Job applicants with African American names get far fewer callbacks for each resume they send out” (Bertrand and Mullainathan, 2004).

Moreover, the wait time that Jason mentions points to the ineffectiveness of the sourcing team, not the D&I policies themselves. Did Jason or his recruiting team try reaching out to any Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), for example, in order to do the same career outreach that they probably did in elite colleges?

Then Jason switches his focus to promotions, where there is again a red flag that shows his lack of understanding and awareness on why D&I efforts are needed in the first place:

“About a week after submitting one set of recommendations, I got an instant message from someone in human resources along the lines of ‘Hi, did you consider recommending [one of my subordinates] for promotion?’ […] I told HR that I had considered it and I believed my recommendation was correct. HR said ‘OK, then we don’t need to change anything. I just wanted to check that you had considered them.’”

Jason arrived at an incorrect inference from that interaction, implying that HR and management would have liked that he promoted that person, even ahead of someone who deserved it more. He missed the point of his HR partner’s question: has Jason evaluated his own biases and is he confident that he has considered all his employees equally for promotion, including those pertaining to minority groups that are historically discriminated against? That question is necessary because women, for example, have been historically less likely than men to be considered for career advancement. Same with Black, Indigenous, and people of color. “Across all industries and roles, only 86 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men at the same level” (McKinsey, 2021).

“I believed that the systems for determining who got a job or a promotion at a company like Microsoft at least aimed at an ideal of meritocracy. Now I believe Microsoft hires and promotes people partly based on their group identities.”

Jason’s reasoning above uses the words “partly based”, which tells me that he doubts his own statement. He must have seen jobs/promotions given to the best candidate, and it seems that from his perspective, simply being part of a minority group minimizes how deserving that person is of getting the job or promotion. Instead Jason forgets that Black employees, for example, often have to work harder for a promotion than a white male employee at Microsoft. I wonder what Jason thinks about Satya Nadella (a person of color), and his journey to become Microsoft’s CEO.

Conclusion

Jason ends his article in a somewhat abrupt way. He references the percent of US Microsoft executives who are Black, which grew 2.4 percentual points in 4 years, and poses a question that fully reflects a racial bias:

“Does a graph like this one make you more or less likely to think they got to where they are because of their accomplishments?”

In other words, Jason believes going from 96.8% of non-Black US executives in 2017 to 94.4% in 2021 is proof that Black people got their executive positions due to their race alone and not their work.

His final sentence has a lot to unpack but summarizes well the problem that our society has in the workplace:

“I fear that when large companies hire and promote people based on group identities, it discourages individuals from cultivating their abilities and ultimately hurts the corporate mission.”

Jason repeats in the quote above that hiring and promotion decisions are made based on group identities, which is a belief sustained by a lack of attention during training, by misinterpreting factual data, and by letting personal biases go unchecked. He says he gets discouraged from cultivating his own abilities when people in minority groups get promoted; he seems to be incapable of understanding that those minorities are equally able to earn those promotions, but have unfortunately been neglected and discriminated against for decades.

Finally, he heavily implies that D&I efforts hurt Microsoft’s mission. Data says otherwise: Microsoft’s share price quadrupled since Satya Nadella became CEO and these D&I efforts were put in place. Similarly, “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians” (McKinsey, 2015). “While nearly three quarters of VC firms have never hired a female partner, those that hired 10% more females benefited from 9.7% more profitable exits. This is an impressive figure since only 28.8% of all VC investments result in profitable exits” (Gompers and Kovvali, 2018).

The Big Tech industry, like many other industries, is still grappling with the realization that the meritocracy that we all want cannot work effectively if people are treated unjustly due to their gender, race, sexual orientation or background. D&I efforts are trying to correct decades of systemic inequity, and some people are reacting like Jason, letting their biases drive the narrative; biases that we all have to work on detecting and counteracting. Earlier, Jason listed three ways of having D&I contributions: hire, promote and educate. The article is clearly lacking on that third one.

Although I believe that the lack of diversity and inclusion we experience in Big Tech companies can be improved with education at a much earlier phase, I know that we cannot wait any longer to prevent discrimination and injustice in the workplace. D&I efforts are here to help us take a step forward in that direction. But for it to work, we need to open our minds, listen and learn.


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