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
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
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
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
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.