28 August 2005

One of the big themes in Thoughtworks is to encourage a diverse range of people in all parts of the company. (In this context we mean diversity in terms of such things as gender, race, sexual orientation, and the like.) We want to be a company where historically disadvantaged groups such as women and non-whites can feel comfortable and get just as many opportunities as the traditional WASPish leaders. Roy, being a notable mongrel, obviously cares about this diversity.

My purpose in writing about Thoughtworks isn't to sell the company (honest!) but to explore both the good and bad of what we do. There's a big difference between the lofty goals of RoysSocialExperiment and our gritty realities, and diversity is a good example.

One of my happiest moments, shortly after joining, was when Cindy came along with me to a company retreat. At one point a ThoughtWorker came up introduced himself, and his (male) partner. Cindy was delighted to find that not just was he comfortable with being open with his homosexuality (something she couldn't imagine at the engineering company she was currently employed by) but even more so - nobody batted an eyelid. True acceptance comes not when something is merely accepted, but when people don't notice it as unusual any more.

That's an illustration of a bright spot in Thoughtworks - a degree of acceptance of diversity that's much wider than most places I've seen in my consultant's life. Sadly it doesn't take much to see darker spots. A recent survey found that a mere 15% of Thoughtworks consultants were female, look at our global management team and nearly everyone is a white male - these facts are embarrassing to report.

Although we're not here to play the numbers, these observations are enough to tell us that things aren't right and we need to see some change. We next have to understand what the causes of this lack of actual diversity are, and what we should do about it.

Certainly one of the foundations of all this is attitude. If people expect and support a white male club, this is inherently self-perpetuating. Mostly I think there is a positive attitude to diversity here, but there are certainly exceptions, which I hope are only islands. At a gathering in February a workshop session exposed some nasty undercurrents; I heard depressing stories of sexism that I never wanted to hear at Thoughtworks.

I'm not sure how to deal with this. Naturally any obviously nasty cases need to dealt with, but much more is difficult to assess. I take the view that it's rude to say hurtful things about someones gender or race (and indeed much else). However I can be as guilty as anyone else if I say something that seems harmless to me that isn't to someone else. Gaining sensitivity on what people find hurtful is important, but not easy. I also don't want a climate where everyone feels suffocated by political correctness.

More pernicious is sub-conscious attitude issues. A good example of this is how blind auditions have effected diversity within classical orchestras. For a long time it was felt that there were plausible reasons why women couldn't be as good as men in many orchestral roles, such as weaker lungs for brass instruments. Major US orchestras have done auditions behind a screen for many years and there's strong evidence that this is why there are more women in leading orchestras today. Some of this change is due to conscious sexism, but it's also likely that unconscious prejudice was at work - how can a small woman get a good loud sound from a French Horn?

I like to think of myself as without a prejudicial bone in my body, but when I do I remember this story. I was visiting a branch of a large multinational in South Carolina. A black man, somewhat shabbily dressed, slouched into the meeting room. My mind immediately classified him as a cleaner. Within a few seconds he introduced himself as the Vice President of technology. Although nobody knew of my pre-conscious blunder, I've often pondered since why I made it. Was it his way of walking - more of a slouch than a confident stride? Was it because I was aware of being in the South? I can't escape a sure feeling that wouldn't have made this classification if he was white. Now I could excuse myself by saying that this occurred ten years ago, but frankly I have little confidence that I wouldn't repeat this error today.

So even if our conscious mind frees itself from prejudice, our sub-conscious is there to trip us up. Is that part of the reason for our difficulties with diversity? I neither know nor do I know how to deal with it. I do belive there is an inherent inclination to encouage people who are 'like us' and it needs a conscious effort to get away from that.

A particular challenge in attitude that we face as a services company is that our environment is heavily affected by our clients. Even if we are able to solve our issues, clients often can bring their own problems.

To deal with this, I need to relate another favorite story, this time a recent one. A prospective client of ours gave a talk that included some thoughts on race that seemed to come out of 1930's Alabama. Just about everyone was offended, but the best reaction was from a young black analyst which I'll paraphrase as: "When he says things like that I don't want to walk away from this job in anger. Instead I want to work with this guy, to be in his face with my abilities and professionalism. People like this won't change if no one is there to show them differently. People need to step up and be change agents even when its uncomfortable."

Other questions still remain, even if the attitude gets sorted out. That 15% figure sounds grotty when you compare it to women being 50% of the population, but go to a geek conference and 15% seems rather high. Whatever the reasons, software development isn't exactly full of females - so can we really suffer too much angst if we have the same ratio as the rest of the industry?

As soon as I point this out, I feel I can't duck the obvious question of nature or nurture. Are women under-represented in geekdom because they tend to be wired differently, or does society push them out? My view is that we don't know the answer to this question yet - therefore we ought to operate on the assumption that women have every bit as much potential as men. Simple fairness, not to mention the sad example of hundreds of years of institutional discrimination, should lead us to this conclusion.

So it follows that, in my view, we should be feeling the angst. I want Thoughtworks to take a leading role in bringing out the talents of groups that have been traditionally been under-served, by our industry and wider society. I want people to be struck by Thoughtworks having more women, more ethnic minorities than other places, particularly in leadership roles. The under-representation of minorities in Thoughtworks is an embarrassment to us, but the larger under-representation in the industry is equally an embarrassment to the industry.

How do we achieve this kind of re-balancing? One thing I don't approve of is changing the standards - accepting a lower quality standard for females, for instance. Such an approach is counter-productive. But there are other ways. We can more aggressively pursue places where we can find women employees. We can do things in the recruiting process that make it easier to find and attract minorities, even if the resulting hiring standards are the same.

Another important factor is helping those we have be role-models both within Thoughtworks and in a wider society. To some extent that does place an extra burden on minorities within Thoughtworks, but the long term cure to both our, and the industry's, diversity problems is to make it clear that people of any background can succeed on their merits. Connected with this is to be more determined to provide mentoring, a recent discussion about the dearth of women in open-source considered mentoring to be one of the more promising ways of improving the situation.

But all this is still pretty limited. We still have a long way to do before we look the way we should. As in so many things, my biggest comfort is that I'm not the one who has to come up with the answers. The great benefit of our hiring model is that we have lots of brighter people than me who can think about these problems and how to solve them. But until then, I have to confess that diversity is one of Thoughtworks's current failures.