What Does A Chief Diversity Officer Really Do?

July 27, 2016

Awareness of the lack of diversity in tech has grown, and many companies and organizations are now hiring chief diversity officers to help improve inclusivity, awareness and hiring practices. But what does a chief diversity officer really do? Are they really making a difference? I took questions from the Revision Path community and posed them to Tanya DePass: creator of #INeedDiverseGames, founder and EIC of the Fresh Out of Tokens podcast and newly appointed diversity liaison for GaymerX.


Tanya DePass

Hey Tanya! First off, I would love to hear how you initially got involved in media criticism and how that led to your current work consulting on diversity, as well as why you think movements towards supporting diverse creators and content is important.

I became a games critic on accident, really. It started when the hashtag #INeedDiverseGames went viral for a few days, and the conversation continued on beyond Twitter. Fresh Out of Tokens grew from wanting to have different conversations than what we were getting in media on diversity and representation. Supporting diversity is important because from childhood on, not seeing yourself in the media you consume has a negative impact on you. If you only get to see yourself as a stereotype instead of a well-rounded person, it tells you that you and your stories don’t matter because you never get to see them.

Many people don’t understand the role or impact of diversity officers. What does the job entail and do you believe it makes a difference in overall representation and understanding of the need of diversity in tech and media? 

The job entails being a person who can bring resolutions and ideas on better diversifying the organization to the table; someone who can go from idea to fruition via collaboration and teamwork. You can have the greatest idea in the world for an initiative, but if no one else is on board, it will fizzle out and die. Having the position is nice, but having someone effective makes a great difference. It also helps when the diversity officer is not a white person, and there’s a reason I say that. A lot of diversity initiatives are often led by well-meaning white people who don’t have the life experience to approach it in a meaningful way. A person from a marginalized identity will have a different perspective and can address issues that may never occur to a white person, such as issues relevant to POC or someone who has multiple marginalized identities.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your work? How do you broach topics of diversity and representation with people who likely have never witnessed or experienced the types of marginalization you’re highlighting?

Simply getting people to understand that diversity is more than a buzzword; that it’s not just a corporate agenda. There’s no SJW cabal holding companies hostage to diversify “or else”. I try to put it in terms they can hopefully understand. I ask them to consider how they’d feel if they never saw themselves represented in media, or if they were presented as nothing but one-dimensional stereotypes. I try to approach it from that angle at first; then if it fails, I get blunt.

How can smaller and/or independent tech and games companies get better at improving diversity and inclusion?

First of all, have a diverse team. There are plenty of non-white devs out there! If you are a one- or two-person team, reach out to people who could give you a diversity review. Pay them for their time, because the deep dive required for a good diversity review will be time-consuming and not something you should ask someone to do for free. Have beta testers and most importantly listen to their feedback! It means nothing if you do all of that and then ignore the feedback. Getting a diversity review is not meant to confirm unintentional biases present in your content. It’s so you can see where you missed something and correct course. Do this early in the development cycle, not when you already have an alpha build and will lose dev time to go back and redo art assets, rewrite dialogue, etc.

Besides race and gender, what other aspects of diversity should companies focus on? What was the most memorable problem related to diversity you felt you’ve significantly improved thus far?

LGBTQIA issues, accessibility, and religious diversity are overlooked a lot. Many games fail to be accessible unless you are able-bodied. Pokémon Go is a current example of the failure to consider those who can’t get out and walk for miles to hunt Pokémon. I hope I have brought more visibility to some of the failures to diversify gaming, and to highlight those doing the work of making more diverse games.

A lot of tech and design companies have a diversity policy; however, many still lack a significant presence of people of color. How can companies fix this? The bigger question is are they willing to fix it? How will tech companies make their work environment welcoming and less hostile for new employees of color?

Companies need to stop acting as if they simply cannot find POC who could work at their company. That is always the question I hear at diversity panels. “How do I find more diverse people?” POC are not hiding from companies. Right now, I don’t think a lot of companies are willing to fix it, so it’s easy to say they couldn’t find a “qualified candidate” — code for “we just didn’t bother to have any POC move beyond the initial screening process”. Let POC in your company be part of the interview process, and provide more diversity in your marketing materials and website. If you don’t have any POC at your company, re-evaluate your recruitment strategy. Who’s recruiting for you? Who will candidates see on your HR site? If I see no other POC and/or no other women, I’m going to be concerned.

What does it mean to you to be a black woman working in these spaces? Do you feel your presence is welcomed, and are you often the only black person or person of colour involved? If so, how does that affect your approach? For instance, do you feel like you need to use different language or be hyper aware of coming across as aggressive, competent, etc.?

It means a lot that I’m still here. I’m not giving up or being pushed out. I feel welcomed in select spaces by folks who like what I do; I’m usually the only black person involved or present. I went to a writers workshop at GDC, and I was the only black person there. The only other black woman I’d met who is in games writing wasn’t present. Unfortunately, yes, I do need to code switch when I am in those situations. I don’t moderate my language so much as my tone and physicality when I am speaking. I maintain eye contact, which a lot of people don’t expect. But I know I could be incredibly mild-mannered in tone and speech and someone will still read me as angry.

A common pattern among tech and design companies is placing the one or two diverse people in their employ in roles that specifically have to do with diversity, like the role of diversity officer or HR and diverse hiring. I find it troubling because it relegates marginalized people to experts on marginalization only — where are the black lead designers, programmers, consultants? — but also puts those people in a highly visible and vulnerable position should the company come under fire for questionable behaviour. Why do you think the majority of diverse hires are placed in those roles? How do you convince companies to give executive and creative roles to marginalized people?

Again this requires a shift in corporate culture and thinking. There’s still a prevailing idea that marginalized people aren’t a good fit for those roles, or that they have to be the model minority companies can parade around and go “see, we DO have a woman/POC/LGBTQIA executive”…but they are often the only one. As I said earlier, I think POC or someone with other marginalized identities should be in those roles, but we can do so much more aside from being the diversity expert.

In your experience what are companies most hesitant about changing? If companies were made up of more diverse teams do you think that would impact their willingness to create more diverse content?

They are afraid of bucking the status quo. Sometimes it’s about money; investors aren’t on board with actual diversity but they want to do the bare minimum so their company isn’t held to the fire for failing to have the most basic thing done, like having a diverse team. They will grudgingly agree to an initiative here or there, but not take on the actual hard work of diversifying their organization. Sometimes it’s even simpler: the people at the top don’t want to change. I think a more diverse staff would be willing and happy to make more diverse content. The problem with that is that your team could be great and making a lot of awesome things, but then the decision makers say no. So change needs to come from the top down.

Is it easier to work with huge corporations or smaller companies? Do you find there is a correlation between size of company and amount of resources and their willingness to accommodate your requests?

Smaller companies — they have less to lose and there are less hoops to jump through to enact change. A large corporation has miles of red tape that can halt or slow progress while you wait for proper channels to approve of decisions.

What immediate changes would you most like to see made in tech and games and how can they be achieved?

I’d love to see more POC on stage at events like E3, GDC, etc. I’d like to see marketing shift towards encouraging women to game again. I’d love the trend of more POC main characters in games to continue (and to do well). I’d love for studios to have in-house diversity consultants or be willing to hire diversity consultants at the concept stage and going forward. Promote and help people move forward in your organization. Break the ideology that there are simply no POC you could have hired.

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