Diversity in the Tech Industry

Don’t believe the hype: the tech industry isn’t suffering a “pipeline problem.” It’s a culture problem.

Facebook released their annual diversity report last week. In it are some positive changes over last year, but they aren’t much to write home about: women are now 27% of leadership positions (23% last year), and 5% of non-tech employees are now black (vs. 3% last year). Is this good news? Yes, in the sense that it represents forward progress. Is it cause for celebration? Not really.

Facebook recommends short-, medium-, and long-term solutions for improving the diversity of the company’s workforce. I will take a moment to point out that it’s good that Facebook does this at all. They don’t have to, and many companies don’t bother, merely paying lip service to diversity initiatives without doing anything to enact them. Facebook falls short, but they’re trying. They must be pressured to keep trying.

So, what are their solutions?

In the short-term: better hiring practices to evaluate candidates appropriately and alleviate unconscious bias in hiring decisions.

In the medium-term: growing their university outreach programs to appeal to more women and minorities.

In the long-term: improve the American education system such that more qualified candidates of all backgrounds are available for Facebook (and other tech firms) to hire.

These ideas suggest that there is a pipeline problem, that we currently aren’t producing young professionals of diverse backgrounds who are qualified to work somewhere like Facebook. It’s as if women and people of color (other than Asians) just aren’t that interested in technology jobs. But could that really be true?

While representation of non-Asian racial/ethnic minorities has always been abysmal in the technology sector, women actually used to have it much better in the tech industry. In the early 1980s, when women’s participation in the industry was at its peak, they represented over 35% of computer science majors. Now, it’s about 17%. What happened?

An NPR investigation found that the reasons are complex and hard to pin down, but at the same time, sadly predictable:

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

This was a big deal when those kids got to college. As personal computers became more common, computer science professors increasingly assumed that their students had grown up playing with computers at home.

Patricia Ordóñez didn’t have a computer at home, but she was a math wiz in school.

“My teacher realized I was really good at solving problems, so she pulled me and this other boy out to do special math,” she says. “We did math instead of recess!”

So when Ordóñez got to Johns Hopkins University in the ’80s, she figured she would study computer science or electrical engineering. Then she took her first intro class — and found that most of her male classmates were way ahead of her because they’d grown up playing with computers.

“I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, ‘You should know that by now,’ ” she recalls. “And I thought ‘I am never going to excel.’ ”

In the ’70s, that never would have happened: Professors in intro classes assumed their students came in with no experience. But by the ’80s, that had changed.

The Internet boom of the late 1990s would likely not have happened if not for a generation of boys growing up around computers and then emerging into the brand-new arena of online business. They came armed with years’ and years’ worth of experience in tinkering and coding. Girls didn’t have that experience because parents, by and large, simply didn’t buy computers for their daughters. This disparity in access didn’t exist when computers were only found in corporate buildings and universities: young men and women got their hands on the technology at roughly the same time and had the potential to work with it in equal measure. But once computers hit the home desktop, all of that changed.

Another cultural shift happened in 1990s, too: where video games were originally conceived as fun for the whole family, the industry evolved to focus on catering to young boys and adolescent males. It’s at this point that video games grew more violent and more sexualized, too. This is not to say that violence or sexuality are necessarily bad, but hypermasculine conceptions of them present a distorted worldview in which wanton violence and objectification of women and ownership of women’s bodies are reinforced as normative.

The rise of the Internet economy didn’t seem to leave much of a place for women or minorities, either. The big success stories of the dotcom era were almost all men, and almost all of them white. Old guard technology companies like IBM, which were relatively egalitarian by comparison, were shattered into virtual obsolescence. The new tech era was much more aggressively masculine, built by young men who’d been tinkering with computers virtually since infancy.

The access disparity would be enough of a problem on its own, but cultural factors within the industry itself have conspired to keep women, in particular, out. The stereotype of the dudebro is, sadly, more than a myth. Guys who “tell it like it is,” who thrive on cutthroat competition, who love working 60-80 hour weeks, who act in creepy ways toward women, may not be the majority of the tech industry, but they comprise so much of it that it does a good job of keeping women away.

Looking for a specific example? Erica Joy writes on the experience of being a black woman working at Google:

I immediately did not fit in, because I didn’t look the part. My coworkers walked on eggshells in my presence, so I did my best to make them feel comfortable around me so that I would be included. I laughed at their terribly racist and sexist jokes, I co-opted their negative attitudes, I began to dress as they did, I brushed it off when they made passes at me. I did everything I could to make them feel like I was one of them, even though I clearly was not.

In 2006, I took an IT Field Technician job at Google in the Atlanta office. While there were black women in the office there (in sales) I was the only one on my direct team of two. Things between my teammate and I were strained, to say the least. It felt like he had some ideas about me that were based on really terrible stereotypes and wasn’t shy about sharing them. This was the only time I’ve ever experienced overt harassment from a coworker. He’d say things like “Did you get that bruise from your boyfriend beating you?” or “I bet your parents abused you as a child.” The comments weren’t always that blatant or overt, but they were constant and consistent.

I arrived in the Bay Area in August of 2008. Being in Silicon Valley has been simultaneously great for my career but bad for me as a person. I’ve been able to work on multiple different teams and really interesting projects. Unfortunately, my workplace is homogenous and so are my surroundings. I feel different everywhere. I go to work and I stick out like a sore thumb. I have been mistaken for an administrative assistant more than once. I have been asked if I was physical security (despite security wearing very distinctive uniforms). I’ve gotten passed over for roles I know I could not only perform in, but that I could excel in. Most recently, one such role was hired out to a contractor who needed to learn the language the project was in (which happened to be my strongest language). I spent some time and energy trying to figure out why that happened, if it was to do with unconscious bias or if it was an honest mistake.

What’s important to take away here is that there doesn’t have to be blatant hostility, slur-laced racism, or even intentional malice. Through clueless, thoughtless behavior, it’s easy for white men to create an unpleasant, oppressive environment for people who aren’t white men.

And just in case you thought the over-representation of Asians in the tech field was a sign of improving diversity, think again: the incentives here are financial, as workers brought to the US on H-1B visas are all but owned by their employers and, as a result, paid less than their American citizen counterparts.

White male supremacy is alive and well in the tech industry, abetted by people who thoroughly believe they couldn’t possibly be racist or sexist. This is a cultural problem that will undermine the industry and curb its potential for years to come unless there is some serious soul-searching and awareness-raising. I believe Facebook is taking steps toward doing that difficult work in order to achieve a more diverse, representative labor force, but they have a long way to go and they can’t do it alone. They also can’t do it by focusing solely on a pipeline issue.

Even Forbes, which is not known for espousing radical cultural views, recognizes the real problem:

The answer is we don’t see more progress because the pipeline concern is not the primary reason for the discouraging statistics. There’s a bigger issue. It’s the culture. We can attempt to solve the problem by educating more women and minorities and challenging hiring practices which are all important initiatives, but the underlying issue that must be addressed to solve this problem is the hidden and often overt discrimination that prevails in the tech industry.

The reality is that gender and racial bias is so ubiquitous in the technology industry that it forces talented female and minority employees to leave. Companies can hire more minorities and women but without addressing this critical issue, they will not experience improvement in diversity.

Kieran Snyder, a former senior leader at Microsoft and Amazon and now CEO and co-founder of Textio, interviewed 716 women who held tech positions at 654 companies in 43 states. On average, these women worked in tech for seven years and then left. Kieran asked these women specifically why they opted out.

Some 192 women (27%) cited discomfort working in these companies. The overt or implicit discrimination was a primary factor in their decision to leave tech. That’s just over a quarter of the women surveyed. Several of them mentioned discrimination related to their age, race, or sexuality in addition to gender and motherhood. They also stated that lack of flexible work arrangements, the unsupportive work environment, or a salary that was inadequate to pay for childcare all contributed to their decision to leave.

There’s much more to tech’s diversity problem than a lack of viable women and minority workers. When those same workers are driven out the door by insensitive, even hostile treatment, it’s no wonder tech companies can’t keep their diversity numbers up. No amount of generating diverse computer science graduates will fix that problem–only cultural change from within can do that.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Diversity in the Tech Industry

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