Why I Rejected Oxford…

Ethar Alali
Jan 23, 2015 · 4 min read

As it happens, I have to admit to taking some of the opposite standpoints to Rosie’s perspective. I don’t write this to be confrontational in any way, as that’s not my intent. However, I’m not personally a fan of ‘positive discrimination’ in any form, because as pointed out in the piece, IT is definitely not a meritocracy and CVs are so poor an indicator of performance, that finding two candidates equally qualified for a role is near impossible.

I look at diversity measures and applaud the ones I think work. In my experience however (born in the UK but of ethnic heritage) there is a lot of positive discrimination that is too closely aligned to tokenism for it to either work, or for people not to self-select out.

Back in 1994 I chose to do the latter, I was ‘wheeled out’ by my college as someone who would qualify to go to Oxford university. Oxford were on a drive to capture more ‘BME students’ and whilst initially it all seemed reasonable, since they’d look to assess in exactly the same way, they then sent me their Black Prospectus!

For those unfamiliar with it, It was an ancillary prospectus sanctioned by Oxford university which attempted to engage with the BME population. In my mind at the time, and even now, I can’t imagine a good reason for this even existing. Indeed, the fact they have one in the first place indicates (non exhaustive list):

  1. They are trying to tackle the perception of racism (Make you ask why does that perception exist?)
  2. They are trying to tackle actual racism (institutionalised or otherwise), which is a bad thing anyway.
  3. Open doors to folk who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to go to Oxford. So why target just BME candidates with this?
  4. Students feel there is an underlying racism which the university feels the need to address (5 x Why?)
  5. Students feel like impostors

I would have been happy if they just sent me the normal prospectus like anyone else. That would have done me perfectly well thank you very much. You can’t change culture in a short period of time as evidenced by the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ tumblr and then the ‘We Are All Oxford’ reply, which highlighted there are some issues there that still need addressing, even though BME inclusion has risen sharply since my time. Whilst you could play the “self regulate or legislate” card, this is a dictate and all that happens is the visible cultural phenomena you’re trying to eradicate just goes underground and makes it harder to detect, enforce and ultimately eradicate, even though it might not then grow.

To me the very pinnacle of equality is treating everyone the same. It’s unfair for individuals to experience questions around “Did you get the job/place because we had to hit diversity targets?” or indeed, more worryingly, “Did I get the job/place because they had to hit diversity targets?”. Either of those are just as bad, if not worse, than feeling like an impostor because the environment doesn’t have as many folk just like you. Those questions more often than not unfairly call into question the competence of the individual through the very irrational means Rosie mentions, which some could argue likely contribute to experiencing impostor syndrome (I’ve not seen evidence for this specific contribution, so I’m personally still on the fence, but happy to be steered toward some. Though effects of peer rejection are well known).

Whilst I agree with Rosie that stances like mine are utopian, it’s addressing the self-exclusion that we need to be mindful of. There aren’t enough female developers coming out of university. From the diversity statistics, Google has the closest gender representation to the qualification rate of university (twitter has the worst).

So I take the standpoint that the difference isn’t statistically significant between universities and industry. However, the field as a whole needs to send a strong signal that the environment is a good place to work which needs a collective effort from all of IT, including academia. It also needs strong policies for when folk have been offered the role and are inside organisations (i.e. enforcing dignity at work policies and having robust mechanisms to allow whistle-blowers to report any discriminatory activity in confidence — You can probably tell I’ve written and used them before in my roles on boards ;). The disgraceful GitHub incident can’t be allowed to happen!

That said, there’s nothing wrong with role models. Encouragement of education for the wider community in what it’s like to work at a particular company, without the explicit intent to say “Hi my company is diverse because they employed me” I think sends a good message out.

Education like that, whilst having a longer term return, I’d say is the right way to go. It makes it more normal, intervenes earlier and will last a lot longer. Hence, I’ve been involved in setting up CodeClubs and helping at the odd CoderDojo in no small part to help stop self-exclusion. IT couldn’t have a better position as a potentially open and diverse field to work in, as anyone can get into it and the barriers to entry are low. We better not waste that chance by substituting one problem with a ‘tokenisation’ issue.

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    Ethar Alali

    Written by

    Mixing TDD, BDD, MDD, EA, Stats, Math & Code into a fizz of a biz & a blog. Director of Axelisys, proud Manc, Citizen of the World, Comedy troll & annoying poet