I’ve given many talks on diversity, technology and culture change, and advised leaders on how to fix the problems on their teams. In all these years, there has been exactly one difference between the leaders who manage to address the problem and the ones who do not. It’s whether or not they are willing to admit they have a systemic problem.
Wikipedia defines a systemic problem as “a consequence of issues inherent in the overall system, rather than due to a specific, individual, isolated factor.” But when it comes to diversity issues, rather than admitting to a systemic problem, people will go to great extents to find alternative explanations for the issues they see. From blaming a “few bad apples” (conveniently ignoring the rest of that quote about those apples spoiling the goddamned bunch) to blaming the “pipeline,” there is a defense mechanism that kicks in that makes leaders believe that a problem without a single, clear villain to blame is not one they can be held responsible to fix. In a previous essay, I went over how Western storytelling, with its focus on likeable protagonists and a clear binary divide between heroes/villains, perpetuates this cognitive blindness.
To help people understand systemic problems, I ask them to look at the diagram below, and ask them why there are no black dots at the end of the pipeline.
Let’s say that your hiring processes value people who are confident, who can think on their feet, and some of the black dots come from a culture that frowns upon putting oneself forward. Progression and promotion depend on people being proactive, stepping up and into leadership vacuums, but some of the black dots have no role models showing them how to do this. Mobility between jobs depends on consistency of performance, but some of those black dots need to take time off to care for children or elders, affecting their work from time to time. And retention in your company usually comes down to resilience, but some of those black dots are more at risk for poor health outcomes. Now, despite having a “color-blind” process, you have no black dots at the other end of the pipeline. This means, not only do you have a systemic problem, if you run this process for long enough you have systemic inequity.
What’s terrifying to people about systemic inequity is that fully correcting it is essentially impossible, unless you’re planning to engage in a process that corrects for past inequity by tipping the scales the other way for long enough. Some countries, like the UK, do believe in measures like positive action, however in the U.S., racism is seen as a case of “a few bad apples” rather than a systemic problem, and so any actual fix would be decried as “reverse-racism.”
Any leader, organization or country that operates ahistorically, i.e. based solely on the state of things today, is doomed to repeating the mistakes of the past. This is why the ability to see “the matrix” operating invisibly underneath the system we observe is what differentiates successful leaders from unsuccessful ones.
Another thing I’ve tried to get people to see the matrix is map it to a hypothetical question, one that doesn’t set off defensiveness or existential dread about whether or not people deserve the positions they currently have. I ask them, “Should Luna Lovegood have been in Gryffindor?”
The primary characteristics valued in the House of Gryffindor are courage, chivalry and determination, all characteristics Luna Lovegood demonstrates in spades. Even before the struggle against the Death Eaters comes to a head, she is able to keep her head and her truth despite constant gaslighting, and she remains upstanding, cheerful and friendly despite daily bullying and eventual torture. She is calm and resourceful in a crisis despite nobody believing in her. But such bravery is irrelevant in Ravenclaw, and goes unrecognized.
The house of Ravenclaw, by contrast, values intelligence… and yet Hermione, the most brilliant wizard of them all, is in Gryffindor, not in Ravenclaw. Did the Sorting Hat make a mistake? How might we understand if this was a one-off case or part of a systemic pattern?
Let’s take a look at the House of Gryffindor: right at the outset, we find nine Weasleys and only a single Black wizard. If the Sorting Hat were a Machine Learning algorithm, we might wonder if the data set determining “bravery” is correlating the trait to names similar to “Weasley” or matching students to Gryffindor based on hair-color.
This is usually the point at which defensiveness kicks in. Surely, if Dean Thomas and Hermione Granger made it into Gryffindor, there is no systemic problem keeping minorities out of Gryffindor. But a systemic problem is specifically one where each individual case may be explained, but as an overall pattern, the outcomes become indefensible.
Let’s take a look at Ravenclaw, the house of incompetent men and “hysterical” women.
Helena Ravenclaw and “Moaning” Myrtle are stereotypes of wronged women, angry aggrieved ghosts who were gaslit and bullied during their time at Hogwarts. Lockhart and Quirrell are incompetent frauds, leaving Flitwick and Trelawney as the only potential role-models for poor Luna. Trelawney is, like Helena, Myrtle and Luna herself, mocked and disbelieved, her competence questioned at every turn. Flitwick does nothing of note, but is scrutinized for his size and his “squeaky voice.”
But it isn’t just the Sorting Hat that is to blame here for Ravenclaw being a less “desirable” house. The points system at Hogwarts depends on advocacy from the Head of House. While McGonagall advocates for Gryffindor, and Snape for Slytherin, do we ever hear the two other Heads of House speak up for their own people? How is this different from an organization where your career depends on your manager’s ability to advocate for you at the executive table?
Are you starting to see the matrix yet? Because this is at the heart of why diversity problems in the tech industry (or anywhere else) are taking so long to fix. You cannot fix mistakes if you can’t admit them. To admit a mistake is to discredit the Sorting Hat, and would Hogwarts even be what it is without the Sorting Hat? What would your company be like without its hiring process? If faculty at Hogwarts were confronted with inequitable outcomes in assigning points, would they react well or become defensive and retaliate in subtle ways, furthering inequities? If the managers in your organization were confronted with inequitable outcomes in promotion processes, would they move to correct the problem, or dig their heels in and justify their past decisions to avoid confronting the shame of having benefited from an inequitable process?
Fixing systemic problems requires a completely different way of thinking, one we have not trained people to do. Here’s an example of a point-fix to the Luna problem, and why it won’t work. Let’s say Flitwick decides to give Luna and therefore Ravenclaw some points because people keep stealing her stuff and she isn’t suing for a hostile workplace environment. That ought to count for something. Moreover, she’s achieved incredible grades despite chronic low-grade bullying at school and low support at home. Flitwick is told:
- Bullying is not tolerated at Hogwarts. Everyone in Ravenclaw has received mandatory training on this.
- If Luna did not report being bullied, whatever happened to her must not be described as bullying.
- If Flitwick did not report or investigate the bullying he observed, Flitwick is in violation of expectations of faculty, and loses points for Ravenclaw.
- Since bullying is not tolerated at Hogwarts, surviving bullying is not part of students’ expectations. Luna could not have exceeded expectations that could not exist.
- Preferential treatment for Luna amounts to favoritism and creates new inequities. After all, Harry Potter is bullied, has low support at home, and nearly dies a lot, and it’s not as if he gets points every time he survives.
I have bad news for you. If you’ve been following along so far, not only do you see the matrix, you’re never going to be able to unsee it. You’ll start to find these patterns and understand not just why things are the way they are today, but who’s invested in keeping them that way. You’ll see the law as a double-edged sword, enforcing the rules of a system that always fails in particular ways because that it was it was designed to do. You’ll understand why women who raise issues about the way they are treated at work will be told that they don’t have a gender discrimination case because “he treats everyone that way, not just women.” You’ll notice that exceptions to the rule are trotted out as tokens: “If XYZ can make it, we don’t have a systemic problem.” And you’ll find the leaders who attempt to justify the individual situations without confronting the overall pattern.
There are many aspects to systemic thinking. Recognizing the role of survivorship bias, for instance, where members of minoritized groups in a leadership position are called to defend a system that produces inequitable outcomes. By parading their own success story they attempt to invalidate other people’s experiences as evidence of a systemic problem. Unlearning survivorship bias means going out of your way to hear the stories of the black dots that didn’t survive your pipeline, even if it means recognizing your own success as a matter of chance rather than merit.
There’s also unlearning “majority vote” which dominates our modern existence so completely as to have become invisible. A friend shared this story of why Sweden clears the snow off pavements before clearing the roads, and it stuck with me. While most cities clear the roads first to ensure cars can access the city’s financial center, clearing the walkways first prioritizes people with wheelchairs, baby strollers, or no access to cars, to reach public transit. We are so used to listening to either the loudest voices, or the voice of the majority (especially when making data-driven decisions) that we neglect the needs of the minority even when they present a solution that can benefit everyone, including the majority.
Seeing the matrix isn’t all bad. The saving grace is being able to see the root cause of problems, rather than just the symptoms. It means we can focus our efforts on the things that will have the greatest impact, rather than the things that feel the most satisfying in the moment. As an example, if you cared about the environment, but felt worse about the paper cup your coffee comes in than the beef you had for dinner last night, or worse about your coffee than the soy milk you added to it, maybe understanding the system as a whole could lead to more intentional choices and better results overall.
Ultimately, seeing the matrix comes down to understanding why certain problems exist and why they worsen, and burrowing deep into it helps you see through the perverse incentives that keep the problem in place.
Understanding systemic problems is also the first and most necessary step to fixing them, which will be the topic of the next of these essays.
This is Part Two of a four-part series. Part One is here.
P.S. You should also see The Matrix.