Diversity Can Be an Annoying Topic, but Someone’s Got to Talk About It

Instead of grumbling, let’s collectively fix the problem

28 May 2018

I’m sure you’re familiar with those meetings in which someone brings up a topic nobody else cares about, and the room becomes filled with grumbling, eye rolls, and groans of exasperation. Who wants to be lectured on a matter that isn’t relevant to them, adding 20 minutes to a meeting? No one.

Issues about diversity are among the annoying topics that keep popping up nowadays. There are so many more important matters on the agenda, such as key performance indicators to measure success. Blathering on about diversity seems like an utter waste of time.

I won’t expound on the need for—and the virtues of having—a diverse workforce here. (You can read my last blog post for more on that.) This time I want to talk about the dangers of being the person who stands up for diversity issues at meetings and to upper management. A company culture that prevents people from speaking up also prevents changes from happening.

THE LONE WARRIOR

No one wants to be the standard-bearer for a cause that often gets lip service but no real commitment to change. Many people choose to stay away from espousing equality. They don’t want to be viewed as the “diversity person” when they’re trying to be taken seriously for their work.

What’s more is the fear of being further discriminated against due to their views or actions. Women often feel it is hard enough to fit into the male-dominated world of science and engineering as it is. Why should they make it harder for themselves by challenging the status quo and drawing attention to themselves as a diversity advocate?

But the truth is that by keeping quiet and conforming to the system, it is not making things easier for them. It is very much a no-win proposition to think you can escape the challenges of your marginalized group by remaining silent.

If there were enough women (and men) to stand up for and support diversity, then there would not have to be “that person” who has to put his or her reputation on the line. It is easier to stigmatize a lone individual than a group with members who have influence in their industry.

Simply put: There is strength in numbers. As more people in science and technical communities speak up, it will inspire others to do the same.

THE WORST OFFENDER

A subtler, but still serious, problem is people who really don’t care about diversity but jump on the bandwagon to make themselves look good. They say the right things, but due to their unconscious biases, their actions do not support diversity. For example, in “Why More Women Do Not Get Invited to Speak at Conferences,” I gave some examples of unconscious biases, such as how men are often selected to be speakers over women because they’re perceived to be more competent. Or, if a speaker’s name is difficult to pronounce, that person might not be invited to present.

Whether it’s hiring managers or those who select award recipients, or someone who selects keynote speakers, their decisions are often not questioned. They themselves likely haven’t considered the implications of their decisions, nor have they attempted to make any meaningful, proactive change in their processes. They perhaps do more harm than anyone else, creating the false aura of positive change when none is happening.

It is not enough that we take at face value everything we hear from leaders about diversity. Demonstrable actions speak far louder than platitudes.

We as a community and as individual members of societies should be asking our leaders to make changes that matter to us.

Senior Member Arti Agrawal is an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is director of the university’s Women in Engineering and IT program, an associate editor of the IEEE Photonics Journal, and associate vice president of diversity for the IEEE Photonics Society.

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