Discrimination in Tech Runs Deep

Dave Feldman
Apr 15, 2014 · 3 min read

Sexism. Ageism. Bro culture. Hedonism. Increasingly, the Silicon Valley we see painted in the press is one of a giant, wealthy frat house.

As with any generalization, this picture has exceptions. Certainly, the press coverage can be one-sided. But it also rings true.

In my own experience, most techies aren’t particularly prejudiced; they consider themselves open-minded, and welcome diversity. If you can cut it in the fast-moving tech environment; if you don’t mind the rough-and-tumble of a harsh, “brutally honest” workplace; if you can handle late nights and fit into the culture of hackathons and long days; if you’re OK with crude humor, and a lot of swearing; then you’re welcomed with open arms, no matter your gender, age, race, or beliefs.

Except hang on…that’s prejudice too. We welcome anyone, as long as they act like us.

Brutal honesty isn’t a right (or, for that matter, a good idea). There’s no rule that says it should be OK to swear in the workplace. Crude humor makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Plenty of incredibly productive people take time out for family, friends, weekends, and vacations — and are more productive for it. No matter how open-minded you are, if you require your employees to act like teenage boys, you’re going to discriminate against a lot of people.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying the tech industry is free of explicit prejudice against particular groups. Of course that exists. But I am proposing that this subtler prejudice is pervasive, and often goes unnoticed, perhaps even by those whom it disadvantages.

And it isn’t merely the sort of prejudice that causes employers to exclude certain candidates; it’s also the sort that causes them not to apply in the first place. Yiren Lu puts it nicely in his New York Times Magazine piece:

If you are 50, no matter how good your coding skills, you probably do not want to be called a “ninja” and go on bar crawls every weekend with your colleagues.

And as long as we treat that as a negative trait and chalk it up to “culture fit,” we’re discriminating. Workplace culture matters insofar as it contributes to team effectiveness and job satisfaction. It’s not about ensuring everyone becomes friends, or hangs out together on the weekend, or parties together—and if we forget that, we let discriminatory hiring practices creep in. Put another way: if I’m interviewing you, I want to be sure we’ll enjoy collaborating at work. Whether I’ll invite you to my birthday party, and whether you’ll accept, are irrelevant—have to be irrelevant.

We need eager, young, opinionated coders to solve tomorrow’s technology problems. But we need more than that. We need diversity—not merely the easily-identified different-colors-and-religions-and-genders diversity, but true diversity of perspective and personality. We will never close the gender, race, or age gap unless we change the culture to accept more people as they are. And we should be motivated to do so: the companies that do will create more relevant products and have happier, more productive teams.

    Dave Feldman

    Written by

    VP Product Design at Heap in San Francisco. Former PM and design manager at Google, Facebook, TechCrunch, Emu, Yahoo. Behavioral science enthusiast. I’m hiring.