Pitfalls in Diversity Outreach

(This is an adap­ta­tion of a post on my blog.)

EA is one of sev­eral move­ments I have seen which have tried to ad­dress the prob­lem of a lack of di­ver­sity, ei­ther de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity (i.e. too many men, too many white peo­ple) or ide­olog­i­cal di­ver­sity (too many pro­gram­mers, too many tech­no­liber­tar­i­ans). The first cat­e­gory of efforts are of­ten ugly and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, and in other move­ments I’ve wit­nessed the de­bate it­self scar­ing mem­bers of the tar­geted de­mo­graphic away. Without re­hash­ing the de­bate on the mer­its of di­ver­sity, given that a per­son has de­cided they want to in­crease move­ment di­ver­sity, here are some com­mon failure modes I have wit­nessed:

  • ex­ag­ger­at­ing the de­mo­graph­ics to make your point, in a way that sug­gests that there are no mem­bers of the tar­get de­mo­graphic cur­rently or at least none whose con­tri­bu­tions are mean­ingful.

use­ful ways of mak­ing this crit­i­cism: “we’re 70% male. why is that?” “we want more peo­ple from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.” “the ma­jor­ity of EAs are just out of col­lege.”
ways of mak­ing this crit­i­cism which have frus­trated me: “why aren’t women in­volved in this move­ment?” “EAs are from all over the world—well, if the only coun­tries in the world are Amer­ica, Bri­tain, and Aus­tralia” “if EA wants to ap­peal to any­one who isn’t an autis­tic white nerd...

  • sug­gest­ing that the move­ment needs mem­bers of the tar­get de­mo­graphic by ap­peal­ing to sex­ist/​racist/​offen­sive stereo­types (”we’re not warm and em­pa­thetic enough. that’s why we need more women in the move­ment”. “the rea­son we don’t have enough black peo­ple is be­cause we’re too in­tel­lec­tual and data-fo­cused.”)

  • sug­gest­ing that the move­ment re­cruit by ap­peal­ing to offen­sive stereo­types (“if we want more non-white peo­ple we need spicier food and fewer long po­si­tion pa­pers”)

  • to­k­eniz­ing the mem­bers of the tar­get de­mo­graphic who you do have ( “hey, will you be the or­ga­ni­za­tion pres­i­dent? you don’t have to do any work but we need a black per­son on the lead­er­ship board” )

  • not ask­ing peo­ple in the groups you’re try­ing to reach what they think or recom­mend ( “As a man, I’m con­cerned that we have too many men, and here’s how I think we should go about fix­ing it”)

  • treat­ing the mem­bers of the tar­geted de­mo­graphic who you do have like they’re zoo an­i­mals ( “A woman in­ter­ested in Our Move­ment? Cool! Those are so rare, you know. But we’re get­ting more of them. Look, over there—that’s a new one.” )

Note that most of these are spe­cific to efforts to in­crease de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity, and that I think in gen­eral efforts to in­crease ide­olog­i­cal di­ver­sity have fewer pit­falls and less dam­ag­ing failure modes. My sus­pi­cion is that the best way to in­crease de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity is through pro­ject part­ner­ships with groups that are skewed to­wards peo­ple we lack; col­lab­o­rat­ing with a lo­cal racial jus­tice group on a fundraiser for GiveDirectly, for ex­am­ple, or with an en­vi­ron­men­tal group on a cost-benefit anal­y­sis of differ­ent forms of cli­mate change in­ter­ven­tion ad­vo­cacy. Part­ner­ships for spe­cific pro­jects re­duce the risk of value drift and, if the groups turn out to be in­com­pat­i­ble, make it easy to part on good terms and maybe win over a few mem­bers who are in­trigued by the EA ap­proach.