Archive | January, 2014

Wait… black women don’t have an automatic Ph.D. in diversity?

28 Jan

I just came across this column when I was reading about the “MLK Black Party” that an Arizona State University fraternity threw over MLK, Jr. weekend. Yeah, let that one sink in. (You can read about it here:

Then I noticed “Ask the White Guy,” a regular column on the website, and this particular post caught my eye: “Can a White Man Speak With Authority on Diversity?” (

My answer is, Of course! Yes! but I wanted to hear what the White Guy Luke Visconti had to say. Here are the highlights for me:

  • “I recently spoke to a group of 900 police and fire chiefs in Oregon—97 percent white men. I made the point that they might not think they have diversity as they sit around the fire house or police station and see nothing but white men—but some of those white men grew up in single-parent households, some grew up in large families, some went to college on athletic scholarships, some worked their way through—and some didn’t go at all. Some have a gay brother, some are gay themselves (and perhaps closeted). I told the chiefs that they could utilize the diversity they already have to gain new perspective on problems and in doing so would better fulfill their missions: to save lives. My point is that it is not skin color, gender or orientation that makes one ‘good at’ managing diversity but mindset.” Fist bump, White Guy. Diversity is about all of us: not just who we are, but how we can fulfill our missions.
  • “Anyone can become ‘authoritative’ about diversity. Nobody comes to the table that way. How you get there, in my opinion, starts with understanding history.” In other words, having an opinion does not make you an authority. This is a no-duh in fields like law and medicine. Yet somehow, people presume that diversity is just about how each of us feels. I’m with the White Guy on this one: expertise in diversity requires historical, contemporary, normative, alternative and fringe education.
  • “History is important, but what I’ve found transformative is personal involvement in organizations that do not serve you directly (by ‘you,’ I mean loosely you as defined by gender, race, orientation, etc.). For example, I’m a trustee of Bennett College for Women, a historically Black college, and on the foundation board of New Jersey City University, a Hispanic-serving institution. At Rutgers University (where I am also a trustee), I co-chair the fundraising committee for Rutgers Future Scholars… The life experience I’ve gained by serving these institutions has been invaluable.” What? You mean diversity isn’t just about advocating for self-interest? High five, White Guy! Equity and inclusion (the why, in my opinion that we talk about diversity in the first place) aren’t zero-sum propositions. More equity for me means more–not less–for you. We’re in this together for mutual benefit, and it’s not that your issues are more important than mine–it’s that they, and we, both matter. And we can choose to ignore each other, focusing each to their own, or we can lean in together, redefining “our” best interest.


Greater diversity (in the right identities)

24 Jan

In “Do All-Girls Schools Breed Feminists or Mean Girls?” (, Eliana Dockterman cites a Canadian study that challenges the social and academic advantages of single-sex education for girls, and documents international research and anecdotal perspectives as counterpoint to this controversial study.

In her penultimate paragraph, Dockterman asserts:

Yet what little data we do have on the effects of separating girls and boys indicates that girl-only groups would allow for greater diversity in identity. Studies of preschoolers have found that girls are more likely to play with “boy” toys when boys aren’t present. As Damour puts it, all-girls schools often allow for more versions of what it means to be a girl. “In an all-girls setting, girls spread out into some of the space that’s otherwise taken up by boys at school. In the classroom they are louder and more expressive.”

Greater diversity in identity, eh? It struck me that the evidence for this is girls playing with “boy” toys or not wearing makeup:

“The girls will say we don’t have to worry what we look like when we get up in the morning. And then they’ll laugh about that,” says [Barbara Wagner, Head of the all-girls Marlborough School]. “They’ll say we don’t have to look good for someone else. The girls who wear makeup to school — it’s more noticeable here. Girls show up pretty natural and pride themselves on how little time it take them to get ready before they come to school.”

Both of these are certainly different expressions of gender from what we might consider traditional girl identity (after all, that’s why we call those “boy” toys, in the first place). Which makes me wonder: how inclusive are girls schools that “have done a lot to combat these expectations and stereotypes” when it comes to more traditional gender identity among students? Wagner’s observation would seem to indicate that within the culture of Marlborough, there may not be greater diversity when it comes to makeup wearing: it may just be that what’s acceptable has shifted. Now, you need to look  “natural” in order to fit in. This raises questions for me about who defines “natural” beauty: what skin color, hair texture, shape and size set the standard for beauty just as they are, whom the natural beauty movement favors, and who is proud not just about not wearing makeup, but about not “needing” it. And regardless of how beautiful a girl perceives herself to be or is perceived to be, if choosing to wear make-up (or playing with dolls, or deciding to get married instead of going to college) means losing the esteem of your peers, then what are the girls as a group learning about diversity and inclusion?

To be clear, I’m not presuming to know or critiquing what Marlborough or any other all-girls school is teaching. In fact, I think the question of whether “greater diversity in identity” is available to girls–and to boys and to kids who don’t conform to either identity–is a whole society issue.

If, as we applaud girls for choosing non-gender conforming toys and eschewing makeup, we also cultivate or tacitly encourage intolerance for gender-traditional choices, then, I would argue, we’re not cultivating greater diversity in identity. We’re just swapping out the roles and scripts that define the options for “good girls.”

Sharing discrimination in the sharing economy

22 Jan

I think this headline sums up the Harvard Business School study best: “Black People Get Screwed on Airbnb” ( To summarize, researchers found that:

… non-black hosts are able to charge approximately 12% more than black hosts, holding location, rental characteristics, and quality constant. Moreover, black hosts receive a larger price penalty for having a poor location score relative to non-black hosts. These differences highlight the risk of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly-routine mechanism for building trust.

Let’s be clear: this finding isn’t ground-breaking. It’s the same effect researchers have found in studies of bias in reviewing resumes ( and housing applications ( all other things being held equal, race will skew our valuation (including trust and liking) of a person, not just according to our personal preferences, but according to normative attitudes about different racial groups. All this, without our ever having to admit that race had anything to do with our rejection or acceptance of them. [Note: This isn’t just about being black or white. Discrimination embraces the full spectrum of race and ethnicity, as well as other identifiers: notably, when it comes to housing, sexuality, sex, gender, socioeconomics, class, age and physical ability. That said, I’m focusing here on the findings of this study, which found “broadly similar results” when it looked at the data for “white” and “black” hosts, versus “black” and all “non-black” hosts (HBS used these categories to identify Airbnb hosts: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Unclear but Non-white, Multiple Races, Not Applicable (no people in picture), or Unclear/Uncertain).

Like Airbnb we all think we’re better than discrimination. The SF-based company responded to the HBS study by declaring, “We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates.” Here’s the thing: a policy does not justice make. In fact, a policy sometimes enables injustice because we think having the policy means that now we obviously don’t discriminate. So we, in effect, give ourselves and our tacit biases free rein to discriminate because–just read our policy–we don’t mean to.

I find ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle’s analysis of the core issue interesting:

Of course, this wouldn’t be a case of Airbnb employing discriminatory policies, or encouraging discrimination—at worst, they’re just facilitating it as a middleman. But it’s a reminder that the “sharing economy” isn’t a fist-bump feel-good utopia, as advertised—we share all our dirty prejudices, too.

I both agree with Sam and resist letting Airbnb off as “just” facilitating racism. Because any facilitation is… facilitation. Arguably, whether they meant to encourage discrimination or not, Airbnb designed their site so race, sex and other identifiers we think we can read in a headshot are prominent features of every renter’s posting–and, therefore, factors in every rentee’s selection process. And presuming that any community, digital, sharing or otherwise, is free of human bias isn’t just naïve. It’s choosing to deny human nature and dynamics. And the only way we can change the things we don’t like about our attitudes and actions is to be aware of them, own them and choose otherwise.

I’m not arguing for a lawsuit against Airbnb. I’m just asking that we all learn something here. I’m waiting for the day when a company receives a study like this about the unintended effects its intended business is having, and that company says: Thank You. We had no idea. We want our company to create a better space for people to engage and thrive. And we appreciate your help making our business better–not just for our customers, but for us, too. Here’s what we’re gonna do…

I’m patient (sometimes). I can wait.

You can read the complete HBS study here:

A quote for MLK, Jr. Day

20 Jan

I’m disappointed that any single lower court judge thinks they can overrule millennia of custom, tradition and law (

That’s Paul Mero, of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative Utah think tank, on federal judges overruling bans on same-sex marriage in Utah and Oklahoma.

I’m disappointed that more people don’t think they can–and should–overrule outdated customs, traditions, and even laws.