The State of Diversity in Tech

Anna E. Cook (she/her)
Aug 28 · 10 min read

When technology firms started publishing diversity reports five years ago, the numbers revealed what many could see just by looking around their offices: there are a lot of white guys in tech. Regardless of initiatives to have better representation in tech teams, the numbers have shifted at an agonizingly slow pace. Many hiring managers complain that, despite their best efforts, there are not enough diverse candidates applying for positions. When these candidates manage to get in the door, they rarely can rise up or they choose to leave. Clearly, our diversity initiatives alone aren’t bridging the gaps. So, what else can we do?

Over the course of my seven years in UX Design, I have both witnessed and experienced the issues that come from a lack of diversity in tech. I am sure you have too. This series is about the lack of diversity in tech and how this gap affects our organizations, including the products we release. But more than anything, I want to talk about what I have learned as a diversity-in-tech educator that can help bridge those gaps.

Over the past year, I have been an instructor for TechGirlz, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the gender discrepancy in STEM-related careers. We offer technology-related courses for free to girls of middle school age when the impact is most significant.

Honestly, when I took that position on it was out of a desire to give my time to something that mattered to me, in a way that only I could. A lot of people can go walk dogs at an animal shelter (and they should) but not everyone can teach specialized technology courses. I wanted to do more than just work 9-to-5, and to me, that means giving back. But I learned that there was a lot more going on with these kids than I initially considered.

While teaching with TechGirlz, I’ve learned how diversity has been systemically cast aside uniquely in the tech community compared to other industries. Personally, I have experienced gender in tech issues enough to know that these problems exist, but I never really understood why they exist or how they came to be. While systemic bias is prevalent across the U.S. and world, the tech industry in this country proves to be a unique circumstance. We are one of the few industries that still struggle with significant gaps while touting disruption and innovation. While hiring initiatives should be encouraged and a great step forward, they alone cannot fix the issues that come from deeply rooted systemic biases.

I can’t unpack literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of systemic bias in two posts, however, I will discuss the gaps of our initiatives, the effects the gaps, and the ways we can bridge them in our current society. This post will provide you with some quick and recent facts, as well as a historical reference so that you can understand what we are dealing with. I’ll frame the context while getting to what really matters−the actionable solutions.

The Deep Roots of Systemic Bias

Anna standing with her TechGirlz class and teaching assistant. The students are holding certificates for completing the class
Anna standing with her TechGirlz class and teaching assistant. The students are holding certificates for completing the class

This is a TechGirlz class from last April in which we taught basic HTML and CSS. If you are a teacher, you likely know that each person learns differently. We all have our own experiences that change how we learn things. I am going to tell you the story of what really happened in this class that may seem anecdotal, but actually is part of a much larger trend.

Jane is a 13-year-old girl and this is the first time she has taken a TechGirlz class; however, she has taken computer classes in her school. Jane is brought to this class with her sister because their parents think it sounds fun. Besides, it’s free and it gives the parents three free hours on a Saturday. Jane and her sister are both sassy and vivacious but when it came time for Jane to open her laptop and begin coding she looked at me and said quietly “I am not very technical Ms. Anna.” I encouraged her to try it regardless, and see how she felt after the class.

Despite Jane’s fears, over the course of this class, I saw her transform. She went from being doubtful of being capable, to building a website in less than three hours. Before the end of the class, Jane came up and showed us how to apply CSS classes to elements. As she stood up there, I saw her realize she actually was technical enough all along. This is not a situation that is specific to Jane. I have seen countless girls start these classes believing they are not technical enough and amazingly leave empowered.

In fact, I’ve personally had the same experience. I started coding at the age of 13, but I didn’t believe I was in any way technical until quite recently. I was offered a junior design and junior developer position at two separate companies when I entered the job market. I chose the design position because I didn’t believe I was technical enough to be a developer. Now, I’m pursuing a Master’s in Engineering focused on Technology, Media and Society. TechGirlz not only empowered my students, but it empowered me.

The story here is not about me being a great a teacher, it’s about the little things we have to do to bridge the gaps for marginalized individuals. It’s about how nuanced these issues are. Obviously, one story isn’t enough to prove that this is a trend, so let’s talk about the present culture at large.

Bar high above with the label of “Hiring,” below are the words “Education, Higher Ed, Retention, Advancement”
Bar high above with the label of “Hiring,” below are the words “Education, Higher Ed, Retention, Advancement”

What would happen if Jane wasn’t empowered in my class? Would she have continued to believe that she wasn’t technical and never try? Or what if Jane, despite being empowered now, doesn’t have access to the same resources as say “John.” What if she doesn’t have access to higher education to the same capacity as John? Will your hiring programs or managers, even with diversity initiatives, look at her as showing enough merit to be worthy of the job? We have seen the answer to be no.

Many hiring managers will tell you that they want to hire more diverse candidates, and they do mean that. But they say that not enough diverse candidates are applying or are qualified.

What they don’t often realize is that hiring issues don’t start at the moment someone starts looking for a job. They start from the moment that a child begins to learn and they continue long after a career has begun. Hiring efforts fail to account for the intersectional nature of this issue. We can’t expect to solve this problem when only trying to fix it from one perspective. This is where the gaps live, in the places that our best intentions do not see.

The State of Diversity in Tech

Women hold 25% of computing jobs in the U.S. 25% is a low number compared to an average of 50% of women holding jobs in other industries in the U.S. This is, of course, not the only instance of gender proportions being skewed in certain industries; however, it is very concerning given than our industry is relatively new, and considers itself innovative. What is most fascinating about this statistic is that women dominated programming careers until the mid-60s, as typing was considered “women’s work.” It wasn’t until two male psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry were hired to make an ideal programmer persona that companies started to hire anti-social white men, nerds, based on the criteria they outlined, over women and women of color. The effect of this has ebbed across our culture for a generation. While there is nothing wrong with nerdy, anti-social, white men, if the people making our products are 90% in that demographic they will struggle to implement products that meet the needs of those who come from other walks of life. The same could be said if an entire team was made up of people exactly like you or me.

2.7% of venture capitalist funded startups have female CEOs

What is the significance of this? For reference, venture capitalists are investors that provide capital to firms exhibiting high growth potential in exchange for an equity stake. These are the people who have given us Facebook, Uber, and more. Currently, 91% of venture capitalists are male. So we are still seeing a trend where men invest in male-owned and operated organizations. Why? This can be answered by looking at the young men who won big at the end of the dotcom boom. People like Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk benefited from the stereotype established by Cannon and Perry. When the time came for a new generation of venture capitalists to be established, we ended up with those who had already benefited by being white nerdy men, who thrived by hiring people they knew and identified with. The same practices are applied in who they invest in and who those startups hire, even as they become billion-dollar companies. I’m sure that none of these men intended their actions to have this effect, but this is how bias works. It slips itself into the choices we make, despite our best intentions, and proliferates as an organization grows.

3% of computing jobs in the U.S. are held by women of color and 1% of computing jobs in the U.S. are held by Latinas
For the purposes of these posts, a lot of the data I gathered was more specific to gender-only issues, race and ethnicity related data coming second and other types of data (sexual orientation, ability, age and the like) being exceptionally sparse. I do believe this reflects some of the problems of this industry that hasn’t been touched on in great detail. For us to be truly intersectional, truly diverse, we have to consider gender and race but also sexual orientation, ability, age, etc. We are in a generation that is unraveling systemic bias, but often from the lens of healthy, young, white, cisgendered women, and this alone is an indicator of a bigger problem. I bring this up to put a call out there to companies to be more publicly accountable for all types of diversity.

These are but a few statistics that frame a much broader story. Biases run deep and they are perpetuated not just in the companies that gain power, but in our society, in technology that affects all of us. These biases create stereotypes that affect our products, educational institutions, and society.

Three diverse individuals looking at computer, working together.
Three diverse individuals looking at computer, working together.

Why have a diverse team

“Choices that software developers make about design, technical architecture or business model can have profound impacts on our privacy, security and even civil rights as users.”

So now that you know a little bit about the gaps and how they came to exist, let’s talk a bit about why you should build a diverse team.

How would you feel about someone who thought things like this?

  • A black or Latino person is less likely than a white person to pay their loan on time.
  • A person called John makes a better engineer than a person called Jane.
  • A black man is more likely to be a repeat offender than a white man.

These are the decisions that algorithms and artificial intelligence software have already made, and continue to make every day. Algorithms are used to make decisions all of the time about who we are and what we want, based on the biases it has learned from us, from humanity. These products, technologies, and algorithms are amazing and adept at learning quickly, but when they learn from a society that has thinking like this, that thinking is perpetuated.

We live in an era of technology that has fundamentally changed how we live our lives. It has changed how we communicate, travel, learn, and live. In a community that readily shares resources such as code and research, as we often do, the work others do affects the work you do and vice versa. Even if you work for a small company the work you do can reach billions.

Not only that, but the lack of objectivity often leads to technology that simply doesn’t profit as well. For example, when YouTube first rolled out its iOS app for uploading video, 5–10% of videos were uploaded upside-down. The company’s almost exclusively right-handed developer team didn’t consider the needs of the left-handed. Even if 5–10% of the population is left out of consideration in product development, you can just about guarantee that that product won’t work or sell as well.

In a report conducted in 2017 by McKinsey & Company, 1,000 companies were analyzed on their diversity and correlation between diversity and profitability. This study also measured longer-term value creation from diversity initiatives. Here are a few things they found…

  • Companies with a diverse workforce are 35% more likely to outperform those without diversity initiatives.
  • Companies in the top 1/4 for gender diversity are 21% more likely to have a better financial return

These are just two of the findings from that report, I recommend reading it, as it is very thorough. For us, these numbers are also correlated to launching products that have been designed, developed and tested with consideration towards biases. Let me use the example of accessibility. Accessible websites and products have been shown to have 28% higher revenue, and 2x more net income. Some of the best-known features in your iPhone, like Siri, were originally built with accessibility in mind and have consistently performed well due to that consideration.

On top of increasing profits, diverse teams with inclusive cultures also tend to cut on costs. Most people want to work in an environment that is accepting of all backgrounds. Happy employees can be 20% more productive and are much more likely to stay with the company longer. We will talk more about the effects of inclusive cultures in the next post because there’s more to it than this.

There is one point I want to highlight briefly as I would be remiss if I did not. Over the past few years, we have seen some companies pay for the consequences of leadership ignoring toxic work cultures and building biased products. Avoiding lawsuits and a poor reputation shouldn’t be the first reason your company opts to build a diverse and inclusive culture, but it is a reason. In 2018, the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits nearly tripled. The significance of this cannot be emphasized in a few words alone, but I will say that companies are being held more accountable by their employees, and by people who try to use their products. Dealing with lawsuits is one thing, but the cost of ignoring diversity is insurmountable when it comes to rebuilding a broken reputation.

Next up: 5 Ways to Improve Diversity in Tech Now

Anna E. Cook (she/her)

Written by

Senior UX Designer in Denver, Colorado building inclusive and accessible products and MS student at ATLAS CU-Boulder.

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