Why Diversity Isn’t Just Right, but Smart "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs April 04 2021 True Diversity, Hiring, Inclusion, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1693 Product Management 6.772

Why Diversity Isn’t Just Right, but Smart


As a Swede, the importance and value of diversity seems self-evident, yet the business world and the tech industry especially continue to struggle to embrace it. As I mentioned in my product management experience article, and as should be clear from the effort we put into the curation of our product management conferences, diversity is incredibly important to me and Mind the Product.

We’re not perfect. While we do well on gender diversity in our line-ups we need to do more to cover all the other types of diversity. Because diversity of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity are important – and they’re important because diversity of thought, opinion, culture, background, and experience is important – something we as an industry need to get a lot better at.

Diversity isn’t important just because I’m a bleeding heart pinko, or because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s politically correct – although all those things are true – it’s because it’s also the smart thing to do if we want to build successful products and businesses.

So even if I can’t convince you of the moral imperative behind embracing diversity, maybe I can appeal to your bottom line instead.

You are not your product

As product managers we spend the majority of our time involved in developing products that we ourselves don’t use. And yet one of the most basic mistakes product managers make is assuming that their customers are like them. In business software you almost never have direct experience of the problem you’re trying to solve for your customer, and in consumer products we can never forget that the majority of our customers are from different backgrounds, genders, cultures, and more.

James Keller, who leads strategy at Uncorked Studios in Portland has a great name for diversity in product creation – “Building great things requires diversity of age, skills and experience. We call that people soup. Organizations need structure and hierarchy to get validated ideas built into products, but the initial ideation and concept development needs less structure and more chaos. Product creation needs the chaos of people soup.”

Put another way – groups of diverse problem solvers outperform homogenous groups.

Empathy matters

We all know empathy is an important product management skill. Being able to understand and empathise with your customers as well as your teams’ challenges is key to building a successful product and team. In a widely cited 1986 study, Theresa Wiseman identified four defining attributes of empathy:

  1. The ability to see the world as another person sees it.
  2. The ability to understand another person’s feelings.
  3. The ability to suspend judgment.
  4. The ability to communicate this understanding.

Which is basically the definition of any product discovery process! So how do we practice empathy? In sociology and social psychology, an ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify. Our brain reacts more strongly when empathising with people in our “in-group” than with people in our “out-group”. Crucially though, several studies show that the more experience people have simply interacting with people in their “out-group”, the smaller this difference becomes – simply being exposed to people from other backgrounds, races, genders, and orientations increases our empathy for and understanding of them. It literally rewires our brain to be more empathetic.

It’s striking then that engaging with a diverse team internally is also going to make you more likely to be able to empathise externally with your customers and users.

As humans it’s easy to believe that our subjective view is objective reality, but we’re subject to a huge number of cognitive biases so being able to step out of our own views and experience other perspectives is a critical step in being able to empathise with our customers.

Experience matters

A good product team needs a mix of design, tech, and business, a mix of genders and backgrounds, a mix of industry experience and product management experience, and a mix of skills from the visionary to the detail oriented, from the data hungry to the user research fanatics. This level of diversity is not just the best chance you have of representing your audience, but also ensures you’re always bringing the best experience to bear on any product challenge you face.

If everyone in the team is a computer science graduate from the same school – they’re inevitably going to bring the same context and the same thinking to bear when solving customer problems, and will almost certainly miss many possible alternatives.

Says Ellen Chisa, VP Product at Lola, “I think the only way you get better at how to do product is by trying new things and if you have a bunch of people from totally different backgrounds, they have more interesting ideas to bring to the table and you might not have seen before.”

Talent matters

Everyone complains about how hard it is to find great product managers. So you’re doing yourself a disservice if you ignore diversity hiring – you’re ignoring a huge pool of experienced talent! Our own numbers show around 40% of the product management and ux world are women – do you want to ignore 40% of your potential talent pipeline? And that doesn’t even count the amazing talent waiting to be discovered and brought into the tech world and product management who might not even realise they’re qualified to do the job.

“I think it’s a lot in people’s heads of how they think about themselves, what roles they can think are open to them, and how they think about their skill set. There is a little bit of an unconscious bias that goes into that for both sides, both in terms of what people aspire to achieve and in terms of the opportunities people are willing to put in front of them” Ellen adds. “The thing I care about the most is that everyone gets to do the work they like the best and are good at. I love product. I don’t want to do anything else and for me it’s really sad that there might be something like this for someone else that they didn’t find or didn’t know was an option or someone told them they couldn’t do and therefore they didn’t get to do it. So I think I spent a lot of time scanning for that and trying to figure out what is the right fit for all of these people.”

Marty Cagan, the godfather of modern Product Management, is also passionate about this topic and in a recent keynote at Mind the Product highlighted 6 great product managers we can all learn from – who all happened to be women. He shares some of the surprisingly simple ways we rule out diversity hires: “if you post a job for a product manager, many exceptionally qualified women will not actually think they’re qualified, and they won’t apply. For example, if your job description asks for 4 years of technology industry experience, then as a general rule, a man will apply if he has at least 1 year, but a woman will only apply if she has at least 5 years.  You may think I’m exaggerating on this but I’m really not. Part of the problem is the job description itself. Many people have obsolete or overly simplistic beliefs about what is required. A degree in computer science is not required – good understanding of technology and how to apply it to solve problems is. An MBA is not required – good understanding of the workings of business is.”

Adding degree based requirements to your job description and hiring process will therefore limit your pool of applicants and mean you miss some truly amazing talent. I should know – I’m a college dropout…

Bottom line – it is good for your bottom line

A University of Maryland study looking at 15 years of data from the S&P1500 found that female representation in senior management brought informational and social diversity benefits, enriched the behaviors exhibited by managers throughout the firm, and motivated women in middle management. All of which resulted in improved individual and company performance – especially where the firm’s strategy was focused on innovation, in which context the informational and social benefits of gender diversity and the behaviors of more diverse teams had a bigger impact.

When McKinsey examined proprietary data sets for 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States – they found a similar correlation that also emphasised that good diversity isn’t just about gender: companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians – and companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

When researchers at Harvard Business School examined the decisions of thousands of venture capitalists and tens of thousands of investments, the evidence was clear: Diversity significantly improves financial performance on measures such as profitable investments at the individual portfolio-company level and overall fund returns.

Look around you

So look around you – at your team, your company, who you follow online, and who influences you. Is that group as diverse as they should be? What can you do about it?

Take action

Others have written much more eloquently and from more experience on what you can do to broaden your diversity and inclusivity – start by reading these great posts – and share how you’re tackling this challenge in the comments!

  1. Lessons in inclusive hiring: what I’ve learnt by Stacy-Marie Ishmael
  2. Building Diversity is Hard Work by Shani Hilton at Buzzfeed
  3. Working On Diversity and Inclusivity by Wade Foster at Zapier
  4. Diversity and Inclusion at UsTwo and their Diversity Dashboard by Whitney Berry
  5. I’m a woman in tech, and this is what I want in a company by Leigha Mitchell
  6. Designing Inclusive Management at Pinterest by Candice Morgan