Over the past few years, diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) initiatives have become ‘hot’ - an active area where organizations, instituitions, and candidates are competing over who does it best. We are engaging in what I would call - DEI acts - these are the events we run for ‘supporting DEI’. We are organizing coding workshops for girls, we have mid-career panels for gender and race minorities, we are ‘expanding our recruitment funnel’, among other things. If our efforts stop at these acts - we have failed phenomenally. Because, unless we critically evaluate what our definitions of excellence are, what does it mean to be successful, who can and cannot be a leader - these acts by themselves can’t result in progress. We might be successful in getting people with diverse backgrounds into organizations but they will leave because nothing is really different. What is worse is that these acts also create a delusion of equity when the core dynamics of the world haven’t changed in any meaningful way.
Often, when we think about DEI, we think about changing the world and the ‘system’ that runs it. I realized fairly late in my life that as I was railing against it, shockingly, I was also the system. It’s the biases that you, me, and everone hold dear to ourselves without any critical inquiry that sustain and feed the ‘system’. If I want the system to evolve to become more equitable, if I truly care about diversity, equity and inclusion, as the first step I have to be critical of my own beliefs. To quote M.K. Gandhi - “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”
After a decade of anger as a woman in CS because no one was doing anything about making it better, I started a quest of self-inquiry. And, I must say, that the most productive outcomes came about when I thought deeply about why I felt a certain way and changed my own belief systems to make them more consistent with what I was saying.
A couple of years ago, as a junior principal investigator, I was asked to hire an intern for a project that I was developing. One of the applicants for a role was a woman several years my senior. During our conversations, it became clear that she had never participated in the workforce due to an illness she developed after graduate school and then, she chose to become a mother. My mind immediately went to the conclusion that she would be unable to handle the tasks I had in mind because her skills were outdated. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I hired her because the risk of hiring an intern was pretty low and I wanted to quickly advance on the project. She was an extremely competent scientist who pursued the project with curiousity, passion, and ownership. Fascinatingly, her motherhood was the reason that she was a skilled task master. I learned a lot from her. The most important lesson though was - hire a mom when you need shit done. She went to become a very successful research manager at a technology startup.
I have numerous examples from my own life when I either caught myself thinking in a biased way or realized that in hindsight. The time when I didn’t recognize the instituition a candidate had graduated from and so I let other people be the decision makers - I later learned, it was an HBCU. The time when I felt that a student was ‘behind’ - her really close friend and colleague was being abused by their advisor and she was the support system - she ended up being the most productive intern I have ever worked with. I am extremely embarrassed to admit that during my undergraduate years, I was firmly against India’s affirmative action policies - I had believed what I had been told about caste and privilege without any critical inquiry. I had conflated accessing education through affirmative action policies with lack of merit - one of the most successful managers I know is a Dalit. This list is endless. In my ignorance and inability or unwillingness to engage in introspection, I have fed the ‘system’. I can’t expect the ‘system’ to be dismantled while I sustain it through my thoughts and actions.
DEI is slow and is very painful. It demands a blood sacrifice. It demands that a personal cost be paid by me. This cost can be the extra cognitive effort I spend thinking through my preconceived notions. It can be time I spend checking in with a graduate student I met that one time. It can be the emotional energy I spend fighting for my colleague. It can be the discomfort that I feel when I call someone out on their cruel behavior. Unless I pay a personal cost, I can’t expect DEI to be willed into existence just because I believe it is the way the world should be. I have to live it into existence.
And, this makes DEI extremely hard. I often find that people (of all kinds) demand and assert that they want their organizations to be diverse - to them, I ask, what is the personal cost that you are willing to pay? Because if you aren’t willing or expecting that someone else will pay the cost, you won’t get what you desire and DEI acts will just be that.