During the NewCo Boulder festival, web development agency Quick Left gave a talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The panelists shared stories of their experiences around diversity—good and bad—and gave advice on what can be done to make workplaces more inclusive. It was one of the best talks I heard all year.
After much discussion, both philosophical and tactical, an audience member expressed concern about counter-discrimination. Would the time come when he would be overlooked for a job because he was not a diversity candidate?
This is not the first time this has been brought up in diversity discussions, and he was expressing what many (perhaps too many) straight white males think when diversity is discussed. To the credit of Gerry Valentine, one of the panelists, he did not chastise the audience member, and instead commended him for his bravery. The man who asked the question gave voice to a common concern that is often thought, but rarely brought up. The panelists at NewCo Boulder handled it very well, pointing out that no one wants a job just based on their gender, skin color, sexual preference, or anything other than their ability to execute on the job. And, collectively, we want to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to compete for jobs on equal ground.
I was truly moved by the entire session, but found myself upset that even at the close of 2015 we are still answering questions about counter-discrimination. When Gerry commended the question for its bravery, I first wondered if he was being glib. But knowing Gerry, I was certain he was serious about his comment. Upon further reflection, I realized what's interesting about this "pale and male" pushback is that it comes from a place of fear. A fear of discrimination is at the root of the question when someone asks, "As a white male, am I going to get passed over for a job because this company wants to hire for diversity?"
Following Gerry's example, it's OK to acknowledge that fear. It’s OK to point out that white men don’t want to live in a world where they are discriminated against, even subtly. While that is a valid fear, for the straight white male candidate, it is only a fear of a potential future. If they can imagine potential discrimination, can they acknowledge that the reality of our world today: anyone who isn’t a straight white male does experience this as real fear. Imagine walking into a job interview having to first overcome the things about you that you cannot control (gender, skin color, sexual orientation, physical handicap, economic background, country of origin, etc.) just to get to a level playing field with the other candidates. If you don't want this for yourself, you certainly wouldn't want it for anyone else.
In startups, we love to talk about unfair advantage, but when it comes to hiring, the only unfair advantages should be skills and experience. What the movement for inclusion and diversity is about—and what we should be striving for—is a world where we all compete equally. If it is a brave thing to express your fear publicly, it is braver still to acknowledge the reality of the situation and work to rectify it.
One of the things I love about the startup community is that once we identify a problem, we move forward to solve it in as many ways possible. The path to inclusion in the workplace doesn't have to be a pendulum that oscillates between two extremes—discrimination and counter-discrimination—before settling down in the middle. Pendulums are a relic of the industrial era. In the digital era, we can choose our target, set our standards, and move forward as a community to achieve them. As you build your startup, build inclusion in your workplace from day one.