Uber's CEO gets it: diversity isn't about gender

In my day job as a diversity consultant I speak to business leaders and start-up founders on organization challenges - collaboration, motivation and retention . Many a time I have had to explain the need for an inclusive and open workplace as a prerequisite for building a high-performing team. And many a times I have been told "Yes we are doing great! We have about 29% women"

That is actually not a bad way to think about diversity, particularly in India. After all, women only make up about 23% of the professional workforce, with the numbers steadily declining over the last decade .

But diversity is more than just gender. It's about assimilating and benefiting from different identities, be it  race, religion, socio economic background, language, or anything else. Diversity is all these disparate hues working to compliment each other. It's about thinking different. 

Recently I read an interview that clearly articulated this view on diversity. In it Thuan Pham, the CTO of Uber explained how in the early stages of Uber, Travis Kalanick spent close to 30 hours interviewing Thuan before finally hiring him. Their discussions were often gruelling and probing, spanning multiple Skype and in-person meetings. But as Pham explains, the Uber founder wasn't looking to test his technical depth; rather he wanted to hire someone who wasn't afraid of challenging him. Kalanick wanted to encourage 'diversity of thought' from an early stage. 

Now Uber isn't a company that one associates with soft, feel-good policies. The company is built around one thing and one thing only - growth. But Uber saw value in building a team where spending time people have different perspectives and wanted to avoid homogenous thinking. Seen in this light, diversity is a competitive advantage, not a social statement.

What was true for Uber then, is true for any one of us building a team. Your engineering team probably has the cream of the crop from the IITXs. They are excellent at solving problems. But building a product requires a hacker that just gets things done, a designer who packages the product into something users actually use and a marketer that lets the world know. In short, your team spans the spectrum of left brains, right brains and everything in between.

Thinking beyond gender can be transformative. Ultra Testing, a New York-based software testing firm has found that autistic employees out perform other employees in certain functions such as quality assurance and finding bugs in code. Around three-quarters of the company's employees are autistic. A leading Indian retail company realised that language barrier was an impediment in a more collaborative environment. With a sustained focus on sensitising their workforce, they reported better customer satisfaction and more innovative marketing.

Until we stop equating diversity only to ratios of underrepresented groups, the real benefits won't be visible. Let's focus instead on the outcomes from diversity.


Ishani Roy is the Founder of Serein. A mathematician by training, Ishani is passionate about using science to tackle gender parity, address unconscious bias and achieve diversity and inclusion in the Indian workplace.