The Dark Side of Diversity

By Micheline Murphy


The Dark Side of Diversity

It is no secret that we, as an industry, continue to struggle with gender inequality.  We all know the statistics, and they are pretty ghastly. Women make up a meager three in ten workers, even though women are half the world’s population.  What’s more, women leave the tech industry at rates greatly higher than men—nearly 50% more.[1]  Why do women leave at such higher rates than men?  It’s not biology.  In a study of over a thousand women who left the tech industry, the number one reason was not related to family at all, but the workplace itself.  Nearly half of the women in the study gave a reason for leaving that was related to their working conditions—lack of advancement opportunities, low salary, or a conflict between the corporate culture, boss, or coworkers.[2]


This is a problem, right? It is. Study after study demonstrates that non-homogenous teams are more fact-focused, more careful, more innovative, faster and more efficient, and get better results.[3]  The technology we deal with daily evolves at the speed of light, so you would think that tech companies would be all over themselves to take advantage of any edge. So why haven’t we been able to make significant gains to attracting and retaining women in tech?


The reason is that there is a significant dark side to diversity.  Studies have shown that our suspicion (or even outright hostility) to anyone that doesn’t belong to “our” group is deeply ingrained.  Group identification alone is enough to produce bias towards members of your own group and against outsiders.[4]   This phenomenon is observed even if the group identification—in one study it was shirt color—is totally arbitrary.  Don’t believe it?


Are you a Broncos fan or a Pats fan?


OK, the football analogy might be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the bias against outsiders can be very real. In a classic study done in the 1960s now called the Robbers Cave Experiment, a group of boys from roughly the same religious, racial, and economic backgrounds were invited to a “summer camp.”  Once they got there, the boys were divided into two houses—Rattlers and Eagles—and separated.  Almost immediately, the studiers saw both groups of boys demonstrate hostility towards the other group, and when the studiers turned up the heat by pitting the two houses against each other, they saw the boys displaying outright aggression towards each other.  One group burned the flag of the other group, and in retaliation, the first group vandalized the other group’s cabin.  Eventually it got so bad, the two groups had to be physically separated.[5]


We’re all engineers here, not the Lost Boys, but the point is well taken.  The dark side of diversity is that if we don’t pursue diversity with significant conscious effort, we will run into different sorts of problems… the kind of problems that arise when a lone outsider is placed in an environment where everyone else belongs to the same group.  Bad for the outsider.


Kind of like what we have right now.


So, what are the sorts of things that we—and by we, I mean everyone, from CEO on down—need to do to be able to turn this diversity thing away from its dark side and into a real competitive edge?



Educate Yourself

Change starts from within, so the very first step towards a souped-up diverse team begins with you. Yes, you.  You can’t fight something you can’t see, so the first step is to educate yourself.  There's tons of literature out there about the invisible (to men) barriers that women in general and women in the tech industry specifically face.


For example, what about this pay inequality thing?  Women on average receive 79 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. According to one researcher, unequal pay was the number one factor impacting gender inequality in the workplace today.[6]  There’s plenty on the Internet about pay inequality.  Go Google it.


There are gob-loads of good Google searches in addition to “pay inequity women in tech”.  Other good Google searches?

  • Why don’t women in tech advance?[7]
  • Barriers to women in tech[8]
  • Sexual harassment in the tech industry[9]


Doing your research is good, but don’t stop there.  Really what I’m trying to get at is that we all need to understand The Problem.  And, The Problem is that not everyone gets to play on the same playing field.  Here are some things to think about:


  • What if you were paid 20% less money because your tax identification number ended with an odd number?
  • What if a co-worker, or a group of co-workers constantly interrupted you whenever you spoke? Just you, no one else.[10]
  • How would you feel if you and a colleague were discussing VXLAN, and when you said that one of the benefits of VXLAN was a reduction in the footprint for spanning tree, another colleague butted into your conversation to you that all modern networks rely on spanning tree?[11]
  • How would you feel if every email from the boss or your teammates started out, “Hey ‘Hawk fans” or “Hello 12s!” and you were a Steelers fan?  Or the lunch room was decorated with the colors of the Toronto Maple Leafs and you were a fan of the Boston Bruins?[12]


And don’t just think about these hypotheticals in a vacuum.  Think about if you faced these sorts of slights and insults on a daily basis. From multiple directions.  How might they affect your performance at work? How might they impact your happiness at work?  Or your continued desire to remain with the company?  Or the industry?[13]


These hypotheticals are all barriers faced by women in the tech industry.  Start training yourself to see the barriers.  Psychologists and sociologists call those barriers “microaggressions”, and they are the “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults towards any marginalized group.”[14]


Intentional or unintentional… that’s pretty important.  Having to fend off Handsy Hank aside, much of what women have to face is actually or seemingly unintended.  Often the response to calling out a microaggression is instant resistance and defensiveness.  We can all hear it now… “Wha?  Wha? What are you talking about?!  I’m not sexist.  I have plenty of female friends!”


Guys, reading this, it’s time for you to step up.  You might not have intended harm, but harm you did.  How are you going to handle it?[15]


Do Something

Once you have “The Sight,” you aren’t done.  When you gain a super-power, you can’t just sit back.  What did Uncle Ben say?  “With great power comes great responsibility.”


What are some things that the everyday engineer can do?

  • Watch your language.  Adopt language that includes all the members of your team, like “hey team!” or “hello everyone.”  Get rid of exclusive “bro” language everywhere—especially in team emails and in external communications like job posting.
  • See something, say something.  Do you see your coworkers interrupting, or worse, ignoring another co-worker?  Say something.  Particularly if you are a man calling out another male coworker, signaling your disapproval is a very powerful tool for change.  And you don’t have to get all dramatic about it.  Sometimes, a simple “Dude.  Not cool” will do the trick.[16]
  • Echo and Attribute. One common microaggression is for a man to repeat everything a woman just said, without saying that the idea comes from her.  Everyone else in the room will remember that “The Mansplainer”, not the woman, originated the idea.  If you see this happening, it is good for others in the room to echo what was said, AND attribute the idea to the right person.  This is the sort of thing you can even plan for in advance if you know you’re going into a meeting with a known Himitator.[17]


And what about you bosses and team leaders out there?

  • Create an inclusive team culture.  If you build it, they will come.  Model the culture you want to have, and the team will follow. You can do all the things that the enlightened everyday engineer would do, and as a boss or team leader, you can teach your team to do the same.
  • Recognize and promote.  One of the biggest reasons that women left the tech industry was lack of career advancement.  As a boss, your conscious effort to recognize and promote the women on your team is a necessary ingredient to make sure that women stay team members.
  • Expand maternity/family leave.  Over and over, having children wasn’t THE reason women left the tech industry, but for many it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Women having children isn’t something that any company is going to be able to stop, and if women are penalized for their family planning decisions as well as having to put up with little insults every day, it will continue to be the last straw that drives women from the industry.  Instead, companies that want to retain their talented women need to accommodate those choices.  For example, Shelley Zalis, the CEO of The Female Quotient has suggested that making parental leave mandatory for men and women would level the playing field at work between men and women, make happier workers—men and women, both—and foster better leaders in the workplace.[18]



Own It

Let me be blunt.  The idea that gender inequality in the tech industry is a women’s problem is like calling the mouse greedy after the pig ate everything on the table.  Men built the current system of inequity.  Men make up the lions’ share of the tech workforce.  Men will need to be a part of the solution.  That said, I encourage everyone—men, women, everyday engineers, managers, and team leaders—to embrace INCLUSION.


Don’t you mean diversity?


No, I don’t.  Inclusion is that conscious effort that it’s going to take from all of us to get over our monkey-brain hard-wiring to get to a fully functioning, high performing, totally kick-*** team.


We can do it.  We can all own inclusion.  Just remember, we are all stronger together.


[1] "Why Women Leave the Tech Industry at a 45% Higher Rate Than Men" Forbes Magazine, 28 February 2017


[2] Anita Borg Institute Infographic "Retain Women Technologists"  30% of women in the study cited working condition reasons such as lack of advancement or low salary, and 17% of women said they left because of hostility between themselves and business culture, boss or coworkers.


[3] Rock, David and Grant, Heidi "Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter" Harvard Business Review, 4 November 2016 Larson, Erik "New Research: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making at Work" Forbes Magazine, 21 September 2017 are a few. 


[4] Satell, Greg "The Truth About Diverse Teams" Inc. Magazine, 22 April 2018


[5] McLeod, S. A. (2008). Robbers cave. Retrieved from  There have been criticisms of the Robbers Cave experiment, but they have been largely targeted at the design of the study, not the observations of intergroup attitude.

[6] King, Michelle "Tackling the Number One Cause if Gender Inequality at Work:  Unequal Pay" Forbes Magazine, 7 March 2018

[7] The very first hit on this search is particularly good.  Next Generation, "Why Aren't There More Women in Tech?"

[8] "The Five Biggest Barriers Faced by Women in Tech" Security Newswire, 6 March 2017

[9] Weisul, Kimberly "Yes, Sexual Harassment in Tech is Really That Bad, 78% of Female Founders Say" Inc. Magazine, 6 December 2017

[10] Men interrupt women significantly more often than they interrupt other men.  One expert in gender communication said that men talk to determine their status and achieve power, whereas women talk to create connection. "Gal Interrupted, Why Men Interrupt Women and How to Avert This in the Workplace", Forbes Magazine, 3 January 2017


[11] Yup.  That one actually happened to me. I was discussing VXLAN with my husband while boarding a plane.  My husband is a Data Center Technical Solutions Architect for Cisco.  I am a CCIE DC candidate (i.e. I’ve passed the written and I am eligible to sit for the lab exam). Some “dude” walking down the aisle dropped that gem on me.  He didn’t say, “…little lady.”  But he didn’t have to.

[12] Or, every post on CLN started out, “Hey guys…” or “Hello fellas…” or “Greetings, bros….”  Look around CLN-ers!  I see this one all the time!!  Not all of us are guys!   . (BTW, even sports itself in the workplace can be isolating!)

[13] "Man Perfectly Explains Women's Rage Today Using Brutal Analogy So That All Men Can Finally Understand It."  Bored Panda, reporting on a twitter-thread authored by A.R. Moxon and posted 6 October 2018.  The thread is pretty lengthy and for the purposes of addressing workplace diversity perhaps a little far afield, but nevertheless, it is a great exercise in empathy.


[14] Wing Sue, Derald "Microaggressions: More Than Just Race" Psychology Today, 17 November 2010 [emphasis added].

[15] In this case, my referring to the men in my audience is deliberate.  How does it feel to be singled out?  It happens to women all the time.   Do you get the point now?

[16] "Men: You have more power than you realize. Here's how to use it." Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace, 21 August 2018

[17] Unfortunately, I can’t lay claim to coming up with the term, but I’m still laughing about it!  Bennett, Jessica "Workplace a bit sexist? Welcome to feminist fight club." The Guardian, 3 September 2016

[18] Zalis, Shelley "Men Should Take Parental Leave--Here's Why."  Forbes Magazine, 3 May 2018