Last week Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned over a litany of diversity and inclusion (D&I) related troubles. I’ve read a lot of the coverage (including the blog post by Susan Fowler that started it all) and it’s pretty bad. Fowler (and other female engineers) were repeatedly harassed and discriminated against, and then shamed and threatened by HR for reporting the offenses.
I’m happy that last week brought significant changes at Uber, however, in some ways, holding Uber up as the golden case study for D&I-done-wrong is problematic. At Uber, the D&I offenses are so bad they clearly cross the line of moral, ethical, and legal wrongdoing.
Taking the Uber example, one might draw the conclusion that absent any criminal-level D&I violations, there is nothing more to worry about – and this would be a mistake.
The Uber discussion, in my mind, misses the point of why D&I is important. D&I certainly can get to the point of moral, ethical, and legal violations – but even when it doesn’t, D&I is still important because it’s good for business.
So – why is D&I good for business? I’ll explain.
A few years back I watched Michael Sandel’s incredible online course on Justice. The course if published by Harvard University and – if you haven’t seen it – it’s really quite fantastic. Lecture number eight explores the question “What is a fair start” and dives deep into the societal distribution of wealth and income.
(Note – AppNexus employees will enjoy a fun cameo at 16:22 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcL66zx_6No&t=16m22s)
Near the end of the lecture – an articulate student in the balcony presents the opinion that wealth should be distributed according to merit. He gives the example that he worked hard his entire life and was able to gain admittance to Harvard as a result (making a connection between hard work and success).
In a dramatic rebuttal – Sandel demonstrates that even hard work is influenced by a variety of societal and cultural variables. He demonstrates this fact by asking who in the classroom is the first-born child in their family (and nearly everyone raises their hand).
The point being made here is, if something as arbitrary as birth order can influence success in life, then is it “fair” to reward people who are more “successful”?
In the lecture, this point pertained to equality and wealth distribution, but it’s also very interesting to consider this “first born” example in the context of Diversity and Inclusion.
I’ll admit, it’s not the best example – traditional discussions of D&I don’t usually cover birth order, but this happens to be a topic that, as a youngest sibling, I have some vivid experience with.
To illustrate, let me tell a story.
Growing up, my family played the game Trivial Pursuit a lot. Trivial Pursuit is a board game where teams take turns asking and answering trivia questions.
Growing up, my older brother was always the best at Trivial Pursuit – and he was certainly much better than I was. He would probably know the answers (or guess the right answers) to about 50% of the questions – which is really good. Growing up, I probably could get about 20% at most.
However, when I went to college, something really strange happened. I immediately got a lot better at the game. Playing in college, I performed quantitatively better – probably in the 40% correct range. This was a huge confidence booster for me, and to this day, I remember some of the questions I answered during the first game of Trivial Pursuit I played in college. Thinking that I had just meaningfully, and permanently, improved my skills – I was excited to show off to my family when I came home on winter break my freshman year.
However, to my disappointment, I found that playing at home (with my brother) my performance was right back down to “pre college” levels. I played worse.
Now – you might be thinking that my brother is just very good, and compared to him, I was worse. I’m confident that’s not the case. Rather, I actually played worse on an absolute basis when my brother was around. When subjected to the context of being a little brother, I came up with fewer answers and got more wrong. Even knowing this effect had no impact – I was just not as smart when my older brother was around.
Perhaps some other younger siblings at there (or perhaps even some older ones) can attest to observing the same effect.
Older siblings tend to excel and younger siblings perform worse because there is a social construct that encourages this behavior.
This same effect, I believe, plays out on a much larger scale in regard to all sorts of other variables.
All of these variables have the ability to produce the “birth order” effect.
That’s why I think D&I is important. It’s more than just legal, ethical and moral behavior – it’s about performance. Treat people right and they will perform better; place people in a context where they are disadvantaged and they will perform worse.
Better performance means more productivity and more returns for everyone.