Pitfalls in Diversity Outreach

by KelseyPiper18th Aug 201519 comments



(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.