home articles newsletter

The never-ending days of DEI's importance

A few weeks back, the creator of Ruby on Rails wrote a pamphlet rejoicing on - what appears to him as - the waning days of DEI’s dominance.

I’ll be honest my first reaction was to dunk on DHH. But a bazillion people did that already, so my thirst for name-calling was already quenched.

I decided to scrap the great title I had initially written for this post1, and engage in a more boring write-up about how diversity, equity, and inclusion were, are, and will always be essential to workers.

Disclaimer: I was a fan of 37signals for a long time. I’ve read every post ever written on their blog. I’ve listened to all their podcasts. I promoted their work philosophy within the companies I worked for. So you know where I come from.

Let’s hit it.

DEI is not something new

The acronym for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion entered the common corporate lexicon with overwhelming force in 2020. DHH

The corporate world might have pretended to look the other way for centuries, but people who do not hold the keys to the castle have long gathered together to gain better leverage against the people who do.

Think of the British mid-18th century with the fight against nascent proletarianization, Mary Thomas who led the largest labour revolt in Danish colonial history in 1878, or the French Front Populaire which fought for the first paid vacations in 1936. Think of Amazon workers forming unions in 2021 who gathered support from progressive tech CTOs.

DEI stems from the same roots as unions.

People gather and fight for diversity because they are left out of the myth of meritocracy.

Inherently, DEI is the underdogs’ team. It’s the people whose parents could not lend them $300,000 to start a business. It’s the people who could not benefit from state-sponsored upper education. It’s the people who begin the race miles behind those more privileged.

I have to ask: Can underdogs really dominate anything?

Even unionized Amazon workers cannot force Jeff Bezos to share his control over Amazon with them. Social justice often works in small steps: get a $300 pay raise, exercise one’s legal right to take a break to go to the bathroom, or apply for fair loans based on one’s revenues, not one’s gender. These fights are small potatoes compared to the strides the corporate world takes to accumulate power and wealth.

But if we want to level the odds we’ve been dealt at birth, these are necessary fights.

Companies are social constructs too

First, companies are neither created ex nihilo nor free from their creator’s prejudices.

Companies inherit the behaviors and the social framework of their parent context: society. Programmers like David and I can relate to this concept of inheritance.

class Company < Society
  def initialize
    @goal = :profit

class Society
  def initialize(attributes)
    @racism = attributes.dig(:history, :racism)
    @sexism = attributes.dig(:history, :sexism)

It pains me to write it, but societies still struggle to address their systemic racism, sexism, and inequalities. Women2 currently experience a backlash that affects their basic rights and agency. BIPOC people are still at the wrong end of a very lousy stick.

According to Girls Who Code and Accenture (hardly a woke company): half of women leave their tech job before age 35, citing noninclusive culture as the primary reason.

These inequalities need to be tackled at every level of society: from public institutions to the intimacy of families. And yes, in companies too.

This brings us to our second point: should companies be held responsible for DEI?

I mean, it’s hard to build a company. I know, David. I tried (and will do it again). You are taking risks. You are putting your money on the table. You are the maverick that carries the wind of change on your dashing shoulders. Whereas those pesky workers are just taking their paychecks. They have nothing to worry about.

Sure, it’s a nice story.

But let me ask you: if you don’t want to deal with people, why bother hiring them?

Yes, you need people to turn your one-person company into something that can cater to millions of people.

And if you need them, you have to make do with their demands. Just like workers make do with companies demands. These are the basics of supply and demand, really.

Adam Smith redux

As Adam Smith could have said: It is not from the benevolence of society, its institutions, or its companies, that we expect our interests to be cared for, but from their regard to their own interest.

We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages. Adam Smith

David, why not see every person involved in DEI as “your husband, your mom, your friend, the person who sits in the cube next to you? They’re real PEOPLE, just like you and me”. After all, it’s the first chapter of your company’s manifesto3.

Sure, for you - a person with power - DEI committees can feel like an itch when they demand of you to create a safe environment so they can do their best work. But they’re also real people - reasonable, reliable people. So why not listen to their humanity from time to time?

When you lose 30% of your workforce not listening to your people, why not RECONSIDER?

That’s the problem with Adam Smith’s most quoted sentence. It traps us into one behavior. As a CEO, I’ll only listen to my interest. As an employee, I will too. And our respective interests are not always aligned.

I know that being shoved your privileges in your face is not comfortable. It happens to me all the time. It rewrites the nice story we wrote about ourselves. Granted, we’ve worked hard (or smart) to be where we are. But maybe not so much as we thought. It also encourages us to make room for people who are kept out. Not because of their lack of merit but because of our ingrained biases.

After promoting calmer (and saner) workplaces for years, you seem genuinely abashed by tech workers leading the charge themselves.

Tech workers – from whom the DEI movement drew its most active and engaged disciples – no longer hold as much power over their place of employment as they once did. DHH

Why so gleeful, David? Why a project for social justice that would benefit everyone is irritating you so much?

Hopefully, power is dynamic. While workers - not just tech workers - might suffer from a fierce backlash by “the most fervent ideologues” of gross productivism, they’re not done for yet.

Workers know the drill. They’ve been practising for centuries. A good way to elicit interest is to gain leverage. And a good way to gain leverage is to gather. DEI committees and unions give isolated individuals more weight in the conversations. DEI is a appropriate tool to pry a company open and air out its inherited prejudices. If it helps changing an organization to make it more inclusive, even better!

A lot of mistakes will be made

Many of the ideological allies of the DEI movement [...] have been swallowed by scandals. DHH

Social movements are not perfect. Like any gathering of interests, some organizations lose their integrity. But what is the alternative? Leaving the drivewheel to untamed capitalists? It doesn’t sound like a good idea. I mean, companies have an impressive track record of ignoring their ethical compass.

DEI will make a lot of mistakes. It’s a given. But is the end goal not worth it?

Come and see our side David: it’s a more fun, a more cheerful life than the one the new bully-in-chief promotes.

Rémi - @remi@ruby.social

ps: Thanks to Sonia, Yannick and Alexandre for reading the successive drafts of this post.

2023/12/01 Update: The libraries of Duke University drop Basecamp with a scathing article.


  1. “DHH goes off the Rails” 

  2. Women as in people who identify with being a woman. 

  3. A manifesto that I like very much, by the way.