I came from Southeast Asian descent, sporting a natural brown tan, originally curly hair, and a short built with a heavy Filipino accent. Very typical Filipino outfit. And I’m also a naturally born female with naturally straight or heterosexual preferences.
One of my white, European, and North American friends in the corporate world joked not once but too many times, “you should break a leg so that you can claim disability, too. Oh, can you do something about being a lesbian, maybe? All that will surely help you get promoted. You check all the boxes.” True story.
The diversity boxes, they meant. I laughed them off, never feeling offended or discouraged. I knew what they were trying to insinuate: “you are so good at what you do; you practically walk on water, but hey, you don’t fit the mold.”
I refused to accept that my ethnicity and color of my skin, or perhaps even a different intonation or pronunciation of the English words, would announce why I didn’t belong in a society that was not my birthplace. Even where I came from, I hardly belonged because of my non-traditional points of view on politics, economics, culture, and ways of life. So I decided to migrate to the United States of America in my early 20s to seek a better life that would value me as a human being, no matter what I looked like or believed in.
As I embarked on a new life in a country popularly known as the “land of milk and honey,” I worked hard, studied more, and proved myself worthy of my work visa (and, much later) a green card and then citizenship). I had to demonstrate not only my technical skills as a computer programmer, which was the basis of my H1B visa work sponsorship but also my unique abilities not easily sourced in the country, justifying my employer at the time to seek recruitment off international borders. The opportunity to work and live in this country was a blessing that I will cherish forever.
Different colors create depth and richness.
The words diversity and inclusion weren’t foreign to me. I just accepted that I’m a non-native joining the ranks of Silicon Valley elite start-up companies at the dawn of the Internet age. I expected a predominantly Caucasian and male workplace, especially in software engineering.
I was the only female in my software development team, which went on for five years without question. I didn’t see anything wrong with that. I had thought fewer females were interested in computers and programming, and I respected that decision. All I knew was that we worked well together as a team, supporting and helping each other to ensure bug-free codes for our clients.
Then I got tapped to start making client presentations to sell our software to potential customers. Because I was the programmer who developed the module, including me in the face-to-face client meetings seemed reasonable.
But I always dreaded those meetings. My first few presentations were not convincing or compelling enough. Although there might be a solid foundation of quality coding behind the software, all the clients would see was someone “different” presenting in front of them.
As a typical young, Californian high-tech employee, I would come to work wearing a Silicon Valley fashion style: a standard-issue company shirt with a logo, jeans, and sneakers. I would switch it up with jean shorts or sandals in the summertime, depending on whether I had meetings with my bosses or was dragged into client meetings, or completely programming in my cubicle.
While I came in well-rehearsed the day before for the client presentation, committing to memory all the words that I would use to sway the client, I would lose my confidence and struggle to put something coherent that I could even understand.
The look of doubts on the clients’ faces, furrowed foreheads, and squinting eyes would immediately destroy my presence. Without opening my mouth to speak ye, I could already sense from their facial expressions that they would be having difficulty understanding me.
“What was I doing here” or “what did I get myself into” or “I’m such an impostor” or “I cannot do this” — my self-talk made me feel inadequate and out of place in a world that indeed did not belong to someone like me.
Perhaps it was not bad like my colleagues would say after the meeting, patting my back and saying, “you did a great job.” However, the high standards I set for myself set would make me feel down, vowing to do better next time.
Luckily, there were many “next times” as our company was the darling superstar in the ‘Valley at the time. To prepare for the eventual “next times,” I would spend my weekends watching American soap operas with closed captioning turned on, so I could follow and read books with lots of dialogues among characters.
I imitated how a typical Caucasian person would speak — the rising intonation at the end of the sentence, the exaggeration of t’s and th’s, the use of American slang or street words, and to add the feminine high pitch at the end (I didn’t want to sound manly). If you were my neighbor, you would think I had split personalities or lived with extended family in a studio meant for one or two people max.
That was many years ago. We’re in the metaverse era now, and the battle for tech supremacy no longer belonged to the ‘Valley old-timers, whom I supposed have either retired in the comforts of their IPO millions or still competing in the rat race at a much senior level. I looked up some of my old colleagues and saw several now brandishing the EVP, SVP, C-suite, Founder, or Board of Directors roles. Good for them. And yes, they are all male colleagues.
The proverbial elephant in the room has always been there — are diversity and inclusion fair? As a female Asian-American, I had ignored that elephant in the room. It doesn’t apply to me. I need to be grateful for how far I got, for the opportunities given to someone like me, and for living a good life in a foreign country I now call home and pledge my utmost allegiance and loyalty.
However, that elephant roared in the wake of George Floyd’s incident in 2020. The political unrest and turmoil plagued a country that once bore a symbol of democracy and freedom, where oppressed people sought refuge for a better and brighter future. At work, department townhalls were held to check how we felt and thought about the situation. Bosses were soliciting suggestions on how “diversity and inclusion” could improve our workplace.
I felt old and tired. It was the same discussions on any channel I tuned into. Whichever way you go, no one would be pleased. It was a touchy topic — damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. One was crystal clear for all of us — diversity and inclusion are impossible to be fair and just. If you catered to one sector, the other industry would feel slighted, and so on.
I’m afraid that no one knows the answer, and the answer is not a one-size-fits-all either. I don’t want to receive special treatment such as promotions or access to more jobs or highly-coveted roles just because of my female genitalia or skin color. That would not make me proud of myself and feel motivated to be the best I could be.
For me, the reason has to be because I deserve it, backed by my experience, performance, and alignment with my values.
If I did a great job, I don’t want to be regarded as the “best female” [insert role here — writer, artist, leader, teacher, and so on]. Why can’t I be simply the “best”?
I don’t want to be a statistic to help the company score on “diversity and inclusion.” True story: I was supposed to start a new role in a new department in January of a particular year, but I was asked if I could begin sometime in December to help improve the diversity count in the department that year. Come on now.
I want to be involved in relevant discussions because of my role and what I could bring to the table. I want my opinion to count. I want to be heard. I want to be able to speak up without being cut off and shoved to the side.
How would you feel if your boss gave you an unfair advantage to take on a promotion because you fit the diversity and inclusion profile, not because you deserve it? People would see it as a blaring disregard for merit and performance, which could cause lowered work motivation and encourage the feeling of injustice or lack of workplace fairness.
The promoted person could be set up for disastrous failure due to a lack of professional readiness and lose her work colleagues’ support and respect. While the original intent may be good-natured, the unintended consequences could wreak irreparable damage than fix the diversity problem.
I also want my colleagues to matter and be given a fair chance, not based on their age, color, gender, etc. Just because we’re all human beings, that’s enough reason to do the right thing. Some groups might have been given an unfair advantage based on gender and color. Let’s call them the “white males” or “white females” (to a lesser degree than the “white males”). Giving them less access or privilege now because they’re “whites” (or perhaps not “trending” under the current circumstances) does not make things right either. History cannot make itself right through discrimination and revenge. History does not justify destructive behaviors, then and now.
So how can we make diversity and inclusion fair? I will leave that for further discussions ahead. But the final story I wanted to share is about how the diversity of opinion and inclusion of different voices and ideas can create high performance in a team to achieve beyond the imagination.
As a die-hard Formula 1 fan, I got the chance to attend one of the co-sponsored classes of Formula 1 with MIT Sloan Executive Education called Extreme Innovation, which was held in Austin, Texas at the Circuit of the Americas in 2018. One of the F1 engineers joined us for discussion and shared how they relied on diversity and inclusion to create a unique competitive edge.
What diversity and inclusion mean in action
If you think of a tire, there’s not much to it. It’s a circular thing made with rubber and surrounds a wheel’s rim, attached to a car so it can transport itself from one place to another. But in F1, a tire is so much more than that. To elevate the tire, a crucial element in F1 racing that could decide championships and dominance, a diverse group of people comes together to design and develop the “super tire.”
The driver provides his experience and feedback on what he needs from the tires to drive longer and faster. The hydraulics engineer brings knowledge that could improve the performance of the tires based on the complex hydraulic system. The data technician collects on-track data to capture the real-world performance of the tires. The data modeler applies statistical modeling to predict the performance and characterization of the tire using lap simulation. The tire supplier brings the improvement on the compound used by the tires. And so on.
The idea is that it takes a village of diverse views to create a “super tire.” Imagine if tires were left in the hands of the tire engineer. It would not have been the “super tire” that can support the pace and performance of F1 cars as we know them today.
To re-imagine, one must brush colors outside the lines. In doing so, expect passionate discussions and conflicts. Diversity is not easy, but we need that to create a bigger and better solution. Inclusivity sometimes bogs us down because we can’t go as fast as we like, yet hearing and considering diverse ideas from people of different walks of life is the heart of the matter.
High performance is a direct result of diversity and inclusion
In the same vein, no matter how we do it, diversity and inclusion bring about extraordinary results when you pull people together, listen to each other, treat each other with respect, and take actions based on shared outcomes.
Diversity and inclusion based on genitalia or skin color are too shallow and superficial. We won’t achieve anything other than increased polarization and further injustices. It’s time to change how we view diversity and inclusion.