Progress Doesn’t Always Feel Good

Editor’s Note: This blog is about competitive advantage with an emphasis on business and technology, so this post might seem a bit out of place, but if you’re new, you should know this is not the first time I’ve written about race, gender, or culture, and it won’t be the last. Ignore these issues at your own peril.

It’s been a hell of a month.

First, there was a 10 page memo that went viral authored by a (now former) Google engineer named James Damore about what he saw as Google’s liberal bias, where he implied that biological differences between men and women might explain why there’s a 4 to 1 ratio of men vs women on the technical staff at Google.

While written in a reasonable tone, it casually and incorrectly assigned a number of traits like higher neuroticism or greater interest in “people vs things” to women in a way that ignored the fact that these are very slight differences over large populations that have not been proven to impact engineering performance. This is a dangerous generalization to have circulate across Google’s 72,000 employees and then have leak into the tech media — especially at a time when the tech industry is grappling with its long, painful, history of harassment and harm to women.

And not long after, we had a march of white supremacists carrying torches at the UVA. Then, a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia protesting plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee that turned violent, leaving a paralegal named Heather Heyer and two state troopers dead, with dozens more injured.

For years, sites like Breitbart and The Daily Stormer have stoked the anger and frustration of a certain demographic (largely white men) to cultivate a small but fervent movement white supremacists, neo-Nazis and what is sometimes called the Alt-Right. The protests at Charlottesville represented one of the largest gatherings of white-power in recent history. Vice News has a really good documentary short up that follows these people over that awful weekend.

Oh, and despite lots of thoughtful responses on why his arguments were way off-base, the former Google engineer seems to dug his heels in on his claims, registering the Twitter handle @Fired4Truth, and has found sympathy among the Alt-Right. I have noticed that disempowering women and elevating whiteness are two ideas that often come together.

So now what? I don’t have the answers, but I do know two things:

1. Don’t sweep this under the rug.

Don’t just eat sheet cake as Tina Fey suggested in an SNL skit. Progress requires everyone’s participation and Damore and Charlottesville are not isolated incidents but manifestations of an ideology where women, blacks, gays, Asians, people with disabilities, immigrants, low-income folks and anyone who does not fit a particular mold are inferior.

And it’s not really about the overt displays of hate—the swastikas, the verbal, physical, and sexual assault—but the subtle and often subconscious comments, gestures, and mindsets. The expectation that the woman in the meeting holds only an administrative function, or that the South Asian man is on a visa and speaks poor English. The mansplaining. The suggestion that poor people are just lazy. We need to identify, name, and undo these misguided attitudes whenever we see them. I’m certainly not perfect and I don’t expect anyone else to be. But we can all help each other get better.

2. Progress doesn’t always feel good.

Training for a marathon doesn’t always feel good. Studying for the SAT or the GMAT doesn’t always feel good. Learning to code or do content marketing doesn’t always feel good. Research shows that diverse teams feel worse, but perform better.

That is not meant to justify anyone’s actions, but simply to reflect the reality that if we want to improve things, we have to do and face things that will make us deeply uncomfortable.

Diversity is a competitive advantage, full stop. Companies with more gender and racial equity in their leadership produce greater financial returns. And a society that does not try to elevate one group and oppress all others is a more healthy and fulfilling one.

If we want to realize those benefits, we will have to do hard things. So let’s buck up, study how others have done it, acknowledge and join those who have already been at this for a long time, and fight for progress.


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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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