Opinions mine, not my employer’s.
Very important article Kelly, thanks for writing! I don’t agree with 100% of your diagnoses or prescriptions (honestly I rolled my eyes at some of them), but absolutely share your concern that a lack of gender and racial diversity is hurting EA. I’d also add age diversity to the mix, and in my experience (which I doubt is unique) this issue interacts with the gender and racial issues in a problematic way.
Back in my 20s, I would have brushed off and rationalized away your diversity concerns. At that time, I was the type of person over-represented in EA: young, male, studied econ at an elite school, working as a hedge fund quant in an explicitly hyper-rational and confrontational work environment, maximum “thinker” assessment on the Myers-Briggs thinker vs. feeler spectrum, etc. Many (probably “most”, or even “almost all”) of my friends and co-workers fit the same description. And I placed a very high value on my opinion, and the opinions of people like me.
Now I’m pushing 40, and I’m still a quanty, thinker vs. feeler guy with a blunt communication style. But I’ve acquired a valuable perspective on just how stupid really smart 20 somethings can be. When you work at a place that hires lots of people that fit the same profile year after year, certain patterns become obvious. You see the first year analyst class making the same mistakes each year, and realize they’re the same mistakes you and your cohorts made when you were first year analysts. You see that some people, with impeccable backgrounds/resumes, simply aren’t very good at their jobs for a variety of reasons. It turns out that even really really smart people mess up in very systematic ways. For instance, the type of people overrepresented at EA (myself included) generally aren’t that great at being humble (probably because of all the good grades and accomplishments). They also undervalue people skills- until I was lucky enough to meet an enormously talented salesperson and watch him build and nurture relationships that were critical to landing many multibillion dollar accounts, I thought the marketers were just people who couldn’t hack the math to do real finance work. I’m sure I still carry this bias to some degree.
When I was younger, I would have fallen in the “sure EA is homogeneous, but can you prove that’s a problem?” camp. With another ~15 years of perspective, I think that gets the burden of proof backwards. We’ve already experienced some of the negatives- remember when an EA journalist went to EA Global and felt a big part of the story was EA naiveté? We know the EA community and its leadership disproportionately represent populations who systematically lack humility (the “best and brightest”), experience (the young), and access to alternative perspectives (the women, people of color, people who remember the 70s, etc. who are mission aligned but think EA is too much work to interact with). That’s a lot of red flags (and FWIW most of my background is in risk management).
So now I’ve come around to the view that the EA community should seek out low cost ways to improve diversity (e.g. limiting jargon), and at least weigh the costs of changes that could significantly improve diversity (e.g. a community diversity officer). And if people want to argue that the lack of diversity in EA isn’t a problem, I think the burden of proof is clearly on them.
I’m amazed and inspired by all the young EAs who want to make the world a better place- I spent my time in college getting drunk at my frat, not reading 80,000 hours. The last thing I want to is discourage any of them. And I’m still kind of young and plenty dumb. So please just consider this a perspective to consider, and an endorsement of the principle of considering different perspectives.
“I think that gets the burden of proof backwards”—I agree that claiming that there are some ways in which we could improve diversity is really an anti-prediction. On the other hand for any specific that we should do X, the burden of proof is on the person who wants us to do it.