• Daisy Powell-Chandler

Why everybody hates you: Diversity part 2 of 2

Reputation is formed from three main components: your own behaviour, the manner in which your behaviour is communicated, and the context in which that behaviour takes place. It is possible to change your behaviour, and you can certainly influence the manner of communication but in order to either of those things you need to understand the third – context. Many of the issues that affect your reputation are exceedingly complex. Money, race, gender, inequality, climate change – how can you possibly be expert enough in each of these areas and more in order to stay ahead of your critics and be (seen as) a ‘good company’?

This essay is the latest in a series that explains the context in which your corporate reputation is being formed, so that you can guide your own company safely through. A lack of diversity harms your reputation in two ways: because you appear to lack diversity (direct reputational harm) and because of the results of that lack of diversity (indirect harm). Last week I wrote about direct harms: unequal opportunity, cultural fit, and tokenism. Now we are going show how a lack of diversity can result in teams that perform less well, products that have troubling flaws and communication that speaks to the few rather than the many. Taken together, these indirect harms represent a massive risk to your reputation.

Worse teams

Matthew Syed’s excellent book Rebel Ideas examines many, many examples of failures that occurred because groups did not incorporate enough viewpoints – or failed to listen to them – from teams climbing Everest, to those designing tax policy; from big manufacturers to department stores.

Among the most striking of these is his description of the events leading up to 9/11. The American intelligence services had all of the information they needed to foil the hijackers that day but they failed to interpret it correctly. Admittedly everything seems easier in hindsight but it is clear that the CIA fundamentally underestimated Al-Qaeda, despite a pattern of escalating violence and prevalent chatter about an upcoming attack. That happened because they did not understand the cultural significance of Osama Bin Laden’s personal branding. The white, protestant, male homogeneity of the CIA had no clear method for interpreting the power of a man in a cave who deliberately invoked imagery of Islamic prophets. They assumed he was an eccentric technophobe with little reach beyond his tribe of mountain rebels. And because they underestimated Bin Laden (and also had too few interpreters) the wire taps on his phone were analysed on a three-day turnaround. If not for this, the CIA would have heard him call his mother to warn her that the attack was imminent.

Syed’s point is not simply that the CIA should employ individuals of many races and religions on the off-chance that the symbolism used by a terrorist cell is hard for white Christians to read – as we’ve already shown, this kind of tokenism has its own downsides. Instead he makes clear that the whole point of a team is to expand the breadth of skills available, the number of eyes and ears and brains working on a problem. If everyone on the team possesses the same knowledge and thinks the same way that benefit is negligible – even if each member of the team is exceptionally skilled. As ever, a picture makes this conundrum far clearer so I’m including Syed’s own visualisation of different types of team.

Diversity, then, is not just a tick box or a visual gimmick for use in bolstering your reputation. Diversity is good for your reputation because it makes your teams stronger, more functional, it can even save lives. And if you need more proof that reputation matters then perhaps you should ask the CIA. In response to the internal accountability report focusing on the lead-up 9/11, George Tenet, then Director of the CIA, submitted two rebuttal letters in which he stated "I take this challenge to my reputation very seriously." Kevin Ruffner is a member of the History Staff for the Center for the Study of Intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency and he also asserts that “The CIA comes under particular scrutiny because of its secrecy and reputation” [emphasis my own]. Even secretive intelligence organisations are worrying about this stuff.

Worse products

Diversity of thought matters not just in national security but in the creation of everyday products and services. Consider these examples: soap dispensers, facial recognition, and seat belts. These are just a few of the higher profile cases in which a lack of diverse thinking means that large swathes of the population are excluded or, frankly, pissed off.

The introduction of automatic soap dispensers has triggered an understandable backlash from people of colour who pointed out that these dispensers, along with automatic taps, flush sensors and driers simply don’t work for people with darker skin. Richard Whitney, from tech-company Particle, explained that “The soap dispenser uses near-infrared technology, which sends out invisible light from an infrared LED bulb for hands to reflect the light back to a sensor. The reason the soap doesn’t just foam out all day is because the hand acts to, more or less, bounce back the light and close the circuit. If the reflective object actually absorbs that light instead, then the sensor will never trigger because not enough light gets to it.” So far so sensible. But why did a design team decide that it was ok to release a solution that only worked for white people – in a world that is increasingly not white? And why are office managers and interior designers in the UK installing products that are proven not to work for about 14% of the British population? I can but suspect this would not have happened if the team and their initial research subjects had included some non-white individuals.

Facial recognition is another area that falls prey to accusations of racism: MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini produced a report in which she tested the facial recognition technology of companies like Microsoft and IBM. Her results make sobering reading: they accurately detected white faces 99% of the time but only correctly detected 20-34% percent of black faces. Buolamwini discovered that the photos used for tests to train the system were overwhelmingly white and male. Given these substantial inconsistencies, it is troubling that facial recognition ranks as one of the most popular and widely adopted types of AI, and is now being used in law enforcement, building management, to unlock your phone… you name it. And as more of these flawed systems see action in the real world the more likely that the organisations that sell and use them will be exposed to massive reputational risks. Imagine, for example, the first officer-involved shooting that includes input from facial recognition.

It is clear that a large part of the problem in both these examples is the data being inputted into the systems – a topic that I tackled in my recent essayson data. But it is also likely that problems with these systems might have been both identified earlier and investigated more thoroughly if the product teams had themselves been more diverse. The gender gap in innovation and start-ups has been fairly well-documented: 11.2% of venture capital deals involved a female CEO in 2019. Less often acknowledged is the ethnicity gap. White women, under-represented as they may be, are still 97% more likely than black men to make it to a leadership position in an American tech company and 246% more likely than Asian women to be executives.

That’s not to say that navigating life as a white woman is always simple: Caroline Criado-Perez has documented the dangers of gender bias in the design of everything from voice recognition and mobile phone apps, to public bathrooms. One of the most haunting is her discovery that the crash test dummies that are used for legal tests of roadworthiness were created in the 1950s (not too many female car-safety engineers at that point…) and are based on the measurements of the average male - as if he were the 50th-percentile human. A few regulators have recently introduced what they call a female dummy but it is actually a scaled-down male dummy, ignoring some fairly major anatomical differences. In the EU, this ‘female’ dummy is required in only one of the five mandatory tests, and then only in the passenger seat.

The result of this bias?:

“Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured in them. But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die.” Caroline Criado-Perez, The Guardian, February 2019

Let’s tear our minds away from the potential human consequences of the biases hiding in our bathrooms, cars and police forces and consider the reputation impact for a company that is found to have released one of these products. Ok – so Apple weren’t hounded out of existence for failing to include a period tracker in their ‘expansive’ health app, but it certainly didn’t help them rebut accusations that they were very white and very male, and as we discussed last week that is a look that serves to alienate more than half of the population. That’s before one considers the expensive and reputation-shattering possibility of legal action.

Worse communication

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, reputation is the sum of three things: context, your behaviour and how you communicate that behaviour. The context in which diversity and inclusion conversations take place is one of endemic inequality between demographic groups. Corporate behaviour to build diverse teams is rewarded not only with improved optics but also higher-functioning teams and better products. Unfortunately, even if you get that bit right, you can still mess it up when you start to communicate.

To illustrate this point I have two political examples: one a statement that made a disaster even worse, and another a near-miss that could have sunk us in a close-run contest.

Photo by ev on Unsplash

Let’s start with the poll tax. The poll tax was an unmitigated political disaster. A small, highly homogenous team of rich, white men sat in a room and came up with a policy that shifted local taxation away from property and onto an individual basis. It was a cockamamie policy that was almost impossible to implement, had a hugely punitive impact upon poorer families (and especially older people) and, in some cases, greatly rewarded the most well-off. The resulting protests rocked British society and led to riots and looting. In the midst of all of this, the minister responsible - environment secretary Nicholas Ridley - was confronted about elderly couples who would not be able to pay. "Well, they could always sell a picture," he suggested, proving once and for all that he really had no idea how normal Britons lived and sinking any chance of patching up the policy or prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s failing reputation. She was deposed as leader the following year.

Or if you prefer your political history to have a more contemporary flavour, then cast your mind back to the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014. Voting day was almost exactly one year after the release of the final episode of American black comedy crime drama, Breaking Bad. If you are wondering how on earth these two events can be linked then you are not alone. Which is why, at the start of the summer of 2014, and just about to get on a train to Scotland for focus groups, I was opening a parcel full of draft campaign adverts and swearing noisily. A small crowd gathered around my desk and unilaterally declared my trip to Scotland pointless.

Breaking Bad had been incredibly popular with London’s hipsters and continued to be a major pop culture reference amongst a particular kind of elite, metropolitan liberal. Which is presumably why the no-doubt-very-hip denizens of major London advertising agency thought it would be a great basis for a series of Scottish billboards. ‘Breaking Bad?’ said the text, with an image of the UK splitting apart at the Scotland/England border. The text and images were all styled like the TV series and the concept – apparently – was that the campaign would ‘get Scots talking’ and that even if they hadn’t heard of Breaking Bad, they would ‘go home and google it’.

Leaving aside for a moment this mind-boggling belief that in a campaign to persuade an entire country that you are right the best approach is to hope that ‘they will be curious and google it’, let us consider for a moment that I was due to test these adverts in Edinburgh, which has its own famous, Scottish, drug culture documented in the EXCEEDINGLY FAMOUS film Trainspotting and that much of the opposition’s rhetoric about the Union had focused on how Scotland was ruled by a British elite that didn’t understand or care about Scottish culture. It was an extraordinary failure by a renowned agency whose team, very evidently, lacked both essential cultural knowledge of the debate in which they were actors, or the diversity to challenge ideas internally before sending them to be ridiculed by focus group participants. The groups were painful but short and the adverts, thank heaven, were never used – otherwise I fear the result might have been a wee bit different.

These were errors in the core message being communicated but further pitfalls await you as you choose the channels along which you will communicate. Ethnic and cultural groups show varied levels of readership and trust in different media channels, for example. Certain disabilities make some channels inaccessible and not always in the way you might expect. For example, only around a quarter of Tube stations have step-free access, making the vast majority difficult for users of wheelchairs, pushchairs, crutches or shopping trolleys. Even if these users make it onto a train to see your carefully planned adverts, I suspect they might be too flustered to really enjoy them.

What to do about it? Three key points to consider

There are times when ‘diversity’ simply feels like the latest management buzzword to become your problem but there is a reason why there is so much buzz. A lack of diversity leads to teams that function less effectively, it leads to products that work less effectively and it leads to communication that harms your organisation.

In future, I’ll talk far more about how organisations can navigate these tricky issues (subscribe here if you want to be sent my articles as they appear each Wednesday) but for the time being, these are my key takeaways:

  • Diversity is not just a reputation chore, it is a business asset. Diversity makes teams and their outputs stronger.

  • Few worthwhile things are easy to achieve. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be more comfortable – in fact the opposite may be true. Apparently the Poll Tax team loved working together in such a ‘like-minded’ group. But a healthy level of challenge is required to stop stupid ideas getting loose into the world.

  • You are who you hire. Individual customers, recruits, investors or regulators may not have access to your diversity stats (although this is coming) but they will see the outcomes of your policies – the products and communications that you put out into the world.

And this bears repeating from last week:

  • ·Eyes on the prize. If your organisation is suffering from ‘Diversity Fatigue’, keep everyone focused not on the drawbacks and hard going of changing procedures but on what you stand to gain if you succeed.


This essay is a starting point that will equip you to understand the debate about diversity and the role it plays in your corporate reputation. There is much, much more to this conversation. What have you read that cast a light on this? How have you tackled this problem in your organisation? I’d love to hear more from you and will add reading suggestions to this resources list so it can improve over time.

Caroline Criado-Perez: Invisible Women

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe: The Blunders of our Governments

Matthew Syed: Rebel Ideas

Jennifer Eberhardt: Biased

Copyright Meyland Strategy Ltd 2020