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  • Writer's pictureCarolina MIlanesi

Facebook's Quest For Cognitive Diversity: A Conversation With Maxine Williams

Last week I sat down with Maxine Williams, the Global Chief Diversity Officer at Facebook, to chat about Diversity and Inclusion at the social media powerhouse. If you are not familiar with Maxine Williams, let me say that she is a real force of nature when it comes to Diversity and Inclusion. Her passion for the cause is palpable and I have to admit the candor in which she talks about the inequities of the world made me feel like stepping up my own effort in making a difference. 

Williams' passion has been central to her career since graduating from Yale University and receiving her law degree from Oxford University and then working as an attorney in criminal, civil and industrial courts and as a Director of Diversity at a global law firm. The skills she acquired as a lawyer from sifting through a lot of information to understanding the intersections of the data and prioritizing issues and outcomes all come into play in her current role at Facebook.

Cognitive Diversity Makes For A Better Business

Every time I ask diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders about their effort, I never want to assume we start from the same idea of what D&I means to them and their company, so that is where I begin my conversation with Williams. She tells me that her focus at Facebook is to grow cognitive diversity in every team across the company. Cognitive diversity means having different ways of thinking based on people having different backgrounds, experiences and information. "We want people to think differently," says Williams, "because we believe that it will help us build better products, solve harder problems, come up with better solutions because the perspective each person on the team brings is unique." To achieve cognitive diversity, Williams takes a very pragmatic approach and one that fits in well with Facebook's DNA: she relies on data. Any company in the US looking to hire has data on five aspects of one's identity: race, ethnicity, disability status, veteran status and gender. These are the data points the Facebook’s D&I team focuses on. They analyze the data and design hiring strategies that deliberately target the gap they have that prevents them from achieving total cognitive diversity. 

Focusing on cognitive diversity rather than diversity per se also makes for an easier buy-in from everybody in the company because the goal is not closing a gap or hire more of this group or that group. The goal is to be the best, achieve the best results. "If you focus on cognitive diversity and the positive impact that has on the business and its products," says Williams "it's easier for everybody to see the value of diversity and get behind it because you shift the conversation from what is best for them to what is best for all of us."

Inclusion Impacts All 

The more I listen to Williams speak, the more I believe that her practical approach makes it easier to understand the nuances of diversity and inclusion. You often hear people talk about diversity and inclusion in one quick breath. But, as Williams continues to explain what D&I means for Facebook, she says something that I have not heard before: "We hire for diversity, but we build an environment that is inclusive for all." 

It seems such an obvious point and yet most people relate inclusion with those five variables you can address through hiring: race, ethnicity, gender, veteran and disability status. Building an inclusive environment, however, means to create a workplace where people of all religions or all sexual orientations or socio-economic status have a voice and can contribute. 

Being practical also means recognizing that some people's voice can get heard more than others. In contrast, some people might find themselves in a situation that is unsafe because of the viewpoint or opinion they voice as, after all, "there is a tax in being the underrepresented group," says Williams. Creative an inclusive environment means making sure that those who would be penalized for expressing their voice are as safe as possible. 

Taking this pragmatic approach of hiring for diversity and building for inclusion should result in better representation across the board.

Lack Of Data And History Are The Hurdles Faced By D&I

I had watched Maxine Williams's keynote address at Wharton People Analytics Conference and I have also dedicated a big part of my own work to research, so I understand how much of a hindering factor "the n is too small" (meaning a small sample base) is when it comes to tackling diversity. You need data to address diversity, but the data sample you can get is too small to be meaningful. In other words, you need a more diverse workplace to obtain sufficient data to better inform you of how to solve the lack of diversity in the workplace. Like Williams explained it in her keynote, “it is as if you are saying to me, if there were more of you, then we could tell you why there are so few of you.”

I thought this lack of data, this “n” that is too small would be the most frustrating hurdle she faces as a diversity and inclusion leader. 

It turns out, I was wrong. History is the biggest hurdle.

Williams explains how we often look at the world of D&I like an island. We might think that diversity and inclusion leaders can address diversity just by hiring more women or people of color, but what they are trying to solve is "one small piece of a way bigger, older puzzle that has to do with centuries of inequality and injustice, and unequal opportunity and oppression and discrimination. You're trying to make an impact and change. And because you're building on top of a foundation, which is shaky, faulty and problematic, the change that you want to see never moves as fast as you want it to move."

Diversity And Inclusion Is Not Charity Work

If the status quo recognizes that there are imbalances in power, they are also able to recognize their own privilege and the experience others have. Supporting diversity and inclusion should not be about other people; it should be about all of us. "The moment you start thinking you are doing something for someone else, it starts to feel like charity," says Williams "we are all better off in a diverse, inclusive and more balanced world." 

Being supportive can be as simple as noticing whose voice is not being heard during a meeting and make space for it. Like when someone in a meeting is constantly cut off or talked over, say something. When you do, you are not helping someone, "you are making room for the potential that person has to offer that will benefit everybody in that room." So powerful to think about it as empowering the opportunity for greatness rather than empowering someone. You might think it is semantics, but it really is about shifting the focus to the result the "North Star" as Williams referred to. It changes the entire dynamic between those who have and those who don’t.

In the end, it all comes back to the people. We cannot change history or make our foundation stronger, but we can change the pattern, we can make it better. As I worry about how "the n is too small" might make the foundation of our AI driving future shaky, Williams delivers the most insightful thought yet: "Computers are agnostics, they have no opinions. Machine learning builds on patterns, so we actually need to work on making what people do, how people interact with each other, what opportunities people give to each other, whose voices get heard. All of that matters, whether you are building a diversity and inclusion strategy or an algorithm. Rather than worry about how inclusive AI will be tomorrow, we should focus on changing society today."

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