It’s no secret that there’s a diversity issue in Silicon Valley and tech in general.
Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently published an article highlighting incremental progress by tech companies and quoting Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google as all collectively saying they “could do better” when it comes to hiring diverse candidates.
If you read any statement by a tech company on diversity, it will likely be put forth by a chief diversity officer, head of global diversity or some variation of the role. The idea of hiring a chief diversity officer has gained significant steam in the past decade. Less than 20% of the Fortune 500 employed a chief diversity officer since 2005 but the number has grown exponentially since then.
While it’s very hard to debate the idea that there’s a lot of disparity when it comes to race and gender in tech, I can’t help but feel like hiring a chief diversity officer is marginalizing an issue rather than addressing it. I’m not calling the skills or qualifications of chief diversity officers themselves into question, but specifically their role within an organization.
As a point of comparison, let’s take the concept of a “chief digital officer”, something else that has gained traction in recent years. Mike Masnick of Techdirt has been critical of the idea, noting his issues with the role (bold emphasis by me):
The problem is that, these days, especially in the media world, thinking digitally isn’t a separate silo or a separate job function. It needs to be the thinking throughout the organization. Just setting up a position of “Chief Digital Officer” is all about shunting digital thinking off into a silo. Even for companies who claim that the Chief Digital Officer’s role is to get everyone thinking digitally, it doesn’t really work.
Seeing the issue yet? Let’s take that exact same phrasing and apply it to the concept of a chief diversity officer:
The problem is that, these days, especially in the tech world, diversity isn’t a separate silo or a separate job function. It needs to be the thinking throughout the organization. Just setting up a position of “Chief Diversity Officer” is all about shunting diversity off into a silo. Even for companies who claim that the Chief Diversity Officer’s role is to get everyone thinking in terms of diversity, it doesn’t really work.
The problems that Mike Masnick has with the concept of a chief digital officer are the exact same problems I have with a chief diversity officer:
It’s a title with no real influence or power. It sounds like a great idea to assign someone to fix a specific problem, but people are being asked to listen to someone who they don’t report to. Mike Isaac himself questioned on Twitter how much influence Facebook’s chief diversity officer could have over Facebook’s hiring managers.
It gives people an excuse to ignore it. More dangerously, the idea of a chief diversity officer feels like a reason to shrug your shoulders and say that someone else is “handling it.” That’s why job roles exist, but again, diversity isn’t a career or specific skill set. Diversity needs to be thinking throughout an organization in the same way digital does.
An organization committing to diversity by making it the thinking throughout the entire organization will address a problem. Hiring a single individual with no real authority won’t, and it risks shunting a significant issue off to the side.