Real Talk About Diversity in Tech

On June 22nd, 2015, I had the honor of being on a panel titled “Real Talk, Real Solutions: A Panel On Solving Tech’s Diversity Issues” at General Assembly in Washington DC. The amazing panelists were tasked with the unenviable mission of having a real discussion about diversity in tech — highlighting issues and presenting solutions.

There was scarcely enough time to completely make all the points I wanted to. So, I will make the time here.

The term — “Diversity”

Firstly, let me say that when I have historically heard the term “diversity” that I viewed it as a dog whistle — a euphemism that discretely asks “How do we, in this company, overcome our racial bias?”

For now, I am going to ignore the fact that race is not a real concept and that it is a manufactured social construct that was used to enforce views of the superiority of one class of people over others and to rationalize inhumane behavior on the part of the oppressor. For more on the Myth of Race, you can visit VOX, PBS or LiveScience.

However, what is real is the fact that racism has a real impact on people’s lives.

Before my allies start complaining and tuning out, with regards to my sharply-focused view on diversity, let me just say that I also believe that the definition of diversity has evolved over time. An expansion that seems to have been both honestly and dishonestly done.

The term has been rightfully expanded by advocates who recognize that gender, age, sexual orientation, patterns of thinking, etc. are factors around which we should all rally and ensure that team composition is representative and that outcomes are maximized.

This post is not about this umbrella definition of diversity. I will have that discussion at another time.

I am also aware of several firms that have dishonestly expanded the definition of diversity in order to “fix the numbers” and evade the question of their own prejudices and their inability to get over them. Take for example, a company that routinely hires tech workers from all over the world, where “all the employees have the same look”. By changing their diversity metrics to measure only country of origin, this company is able to herald a diversity success for the first time ever without making any meaningful change. Tactics like these have been all too common in tech.

Tech in a Vacuum

The technology sector is an industry, amongst many other industries, living in a society that is built on systemic racism.

Thus, it should not be a surprise that the percentage of black employees at the major tech firms hovers around 2% of their total employment base, when blacks make up 13.2% of the US population (in 2013) [Source: US Census Bureau].

With “diversity” data being slowly released, tech companies cannot claim to live in a meritocracy bubble, but must acknowledge that they, along with the rest of the United States, is racist.

Put more delicately, every American citizen has at least one negative bias directed towards “black people”.

Recognition is a difficult, but necessary, first step.

From that point onwards, we (as a society) can have open, honest, awkward and difficult discussions — that may make some people uncomfortable.

It is perfectly okay for you to have some discomfort.

Feel into it and be okay with it.

It is not going away until the problem of racism goes away.

The interesting point about the tech sector is that it offers a focused data point that enables us to examine the after-effects of a few hundred years of institutional racism.

At this point you may be asking yourself “What is this systemic racism of which you speak? I thought we did away with racism a long time ago

Just because you don’t see it or don’t experience it, doesn’t mean it does not exist.

The Institution of Racism

Racism is an invisible system of discrimination and injustice that was created and is maintained by our social institutions. It is re-enforced by the media, educational institutions, the scientific community, politicians and every other mechanism of the public trust. It is also ingrained in our values and attitudes and drives our stereotypes and prejudices; both consciously and unconsciously.

Racism has always been a foundational element of American culture and it keeps people of color as permanent second-class citizens.

Most of us are aware of the 400 years of slavery that built the American economy. However, many are less cognizant of the hundred years of overt discrimination against blacks that followed, the subsequent fifty years of covert discrimination and the re-emergence of overt discrimination since the election of America’s first African American president.

The past is the past. Leave it there. We are in a better place now.” — you say.

Unfortunately, history directly influences and shapes today.

Forgetting history is a luxury only the privileged can afford.

So, let’s talk a little about the historical inputs to the discussion.

A Quick History Primer

Many are still of the mindset that the 13th Amendment officially ended slavery in 1865 and put America on the right path forward.

Let’s Call It Something Else

Unfortunately, history shows that a full decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, “slavery by another name” was in full effect. In the words of Noam Chomsky, “Black life was criminalized by overly harsh codes that targeted black people. Soon an even more valuable form of slavery was available for agribusiness, mining, steel — more valuable because the state, not the capitalist, was responsible for sustaining the enslaved labor force, meaning that blacks were arrested without real cause and prisoners were put to work for these business interests. The system provided a major contribution to the rapid industrial development from the late 19th century.”

Then government policy helped the cause.

Government Intervention

In the 1930s, the US government made an extremely important step towards institutionalizing racism with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which backed $120 billion of home loans (for whites only) — stigmatizing people of color as undesirable neighbours and as detrimental to white community and white house values. This practice is often referred to as redlining.

The impact?

Redlining forced blacks into poor, urban centers — the genesis of “ghettos”. It also maintained segregation; in a way that was more sophisticated and more palatable than South African Apartheid — but used the same tactics around land distribution — while being just as effective.

Redlining made it impossible to invest in the future of black neighborhoods and created both a society of economically-advantaged whites and an underclass of blacks that could never inherit wealth as their white counterparts did.

In the rare cases where prosperous black communities were built, they were sharply and quickly burned to the ground by white “neighbours”. Greenwood, Oklahoma (Black Wall Street) and Rosewood, Florida are the better known examples of this then common phenomena.

Redlining was official policy till well into the 1960s and continued to be informally enforced for a few decades after.

The After-Effects of Targeted Placement

As schools are funded from real estate property taxes, this meant that white families in nice houses, which were probably subsidized from the government, got better schools. With better educational options, there were more opportunities for connections, jobs and money available to whites.

At the same time, the lack of education opportunities translated into lots of black families being forced into one or more low-wage, manual labor jobs — further re-enforcing both the stratification of the races and feeding negative perceptions about black people that most Americans are trained to assume and most of the media takes as a given and (subconsciously) promotes.

It is this phenomena, that creates the unconscious bias (aka “hidden bias” or “second generation discrimination”) that makes employers fifty percent more likely to call back a person with a white-sounding name over one with a black-sounding name. (study details here)

Whether conscious or unconscious, the tail end of the civil rights movements was followed by the conversion of prisons into privatized, for-profit businesses.

Marry this with policies that continue to outlaw “black life” and you get:

  • A prison population going from 200,000 in 1970 to around 6.9 million in 2013. A 3450% increase in 33 years.
  • An imprisonment rate for black men that is six times more than white men.

Controversial laws that specifically target black communities, such as “Stop and Frisk”, “Three Strikes”, and “Show Me Your Papers”, coupled with harsher penalties for black-associated actions, e.g. the penalties for crack (which is commonly viewed as “a black drug”) were 100 times harsher than for cocaine (which is commonly viewed as “a white drug”), led to a situation where currently America has more African Americans in prison than there were slaves in 1850.

All this exists in and supports a society that covertly teaches whites to 1) fear black men, 2) over-sexualize black women, and 3) view black people as inherently less than. This “othering” is necessary for creating distance and detachment — which enables the justification of cruel, immoral and unseemly behavior on these “others”. Luckily, the pervasiveness of cell phones and technology has put a spotlight on some of these issues in the past year.

Should we expect that the leaders (or the people) in Tech will be completely immune to all this? Of course not.

But? But? But? I had no idea.

Intentional ignorance is never an excuse.

So, what next?

What Can Be Done?

If you still don’t get it or refuse to admit it, then all I can do is ask you to look at this, this, this, this and this.

If you get what I am saying then you know that in the long term, systemic racism needs to be overcome by changes to the system that skewed it in the first place.

Long Term

The government played a vital part in the creation of this institution and it needs to be just as vibrant in its eradication. Focus has to be on:

  1. Laws that promote the creation of diverse communities
  • Empathy comes from mixed communities, (i.e. rich, poor, black, white, other) living in close proximity to each other, experiencing a common bond, and empathizing with each around the things that make us all fundamentally human. This is the complete opposite of the segregation encouraged by the FHA.
  1. The removal and or correction of laws that reinforce the illegality of “black lives”.
  2. The strengthening or course-correcting of the institutions created to protect civil rights.
  • For example, though organizations like the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have admirable missions, many experience them as ineffective measures in place to appear to be doing something, but just protecting the status quo and the metrics they are evaluated on.
  1. Re-alignment of Incentives and Accountability when it comes to the distribution of Federal funds, i.e. the money of all American taxpayers. It is critical to encourage social mobility initiatives, community building and equal access, equal opportunity, equal rights and positive outcome-driven diversity actions.
  2. The re-public-ization, as opposed to privatization, of all public goods or those assets that form a part of the social contract that the government implicitly forges with its citizens, e.g. educational institutions, prisons, etc.

Short Term

If you are not a person of color, you need to become a better ally.

Understand your biases. Knowing yourself means you can know when your incorrect programming is leading you astray.

Understand that your world and your experiences are from a place of privilege and seek to comprehend how the other half lives.

Be responsible for your education and be empathic — stop saying stuff like “that can’t be true”, “that would never happen”, “I can’t believe that”, etc.

Build a diverse community. If more than 49% of any of your networks, i.e. your friends, your professional network etc., is from your own “race”, then you are failing at this.

Lobby your elected officials to pass legislation that improves the lives of people of color. You can push for fixes to symptoms or you can push for root causes. I think you know which has longer lasting impact.

Invest and or build poor communities. Though this is a band-aid, the generational impact on yourself and the communities you help will lay the foundation for more impactful systemic change in the long run.

The Tech World

For people in the technology sector, there is additional work to be done.

As an employee, it is your responsibility to do the short term actions above.

As an employer, it is your duty to ensure that your corporate culture is not an excuse to further your bias, but 1) a true reflection of the values and attitudes that you want to foster, and 2) an indication of the customer base that makes your business successful.

Employers must also ensure that their teams know what bias is, how to identify it, and how to actively work on reducing its impact on the business.

In an ecosystem where systemic racism is the norm, doing what is right will not happen if people, who are blissfully unaware, are not shown 1) exactly what is wrong, and 2) how their self-interest can be satisfied by doing good.

Additionally, employers must build (and reinforce) accountability measures into the company’s processes and culture so that hiring, mentoring and retention do not contain inherent bias.

Hiring managers have a special role to play. In identifying their own biases, getting to know candidates ahead of time, focusing on the facts (and not on feelings) and giving themselves time to make decisions (rather than making quick, bias-based judgements in the first few minutes of an interview), they can make significant improvements in diversity hiring for their firms.

As a Venture Capitalist, check your bias at the door, ensure that you have a cross-section of diverse and diversely-owned companies in their portfolio.

For everyone in the tech world, I would advise against painting the issue of “Diversity in Tech” as a supply-demand issue because most minorities will rightly see it as a very clear smoke screen with the hidden message: “We really don’t care about this”.

Here are some statistics to think about:

  • In 2013, 4.5% of all new recipients of bachelor’s degrees in computer science or computer engineering from prestigious research universities were African American, and 6.5% were Hispanic, according to data from the Computing Research Association. This does not include HBCUs. So, in reality the rate is much higher.
  • On average, just 2% of technology workers at the leading Silicon Valley tech companies that have released staffing numbers are black; 3% are Hispanic.

If you want real engagement, have a real discussion.

Parting Remarks

While I am happy that advances in the technology sector have created an environment where this sort of discussion is happening and needs to happen more, I am disheartened that history is playing too small a part in this discussion.

If you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it

Tech is a microcosm of the broader American society. As such, the recognition of Othering in the tech sector and the dangerous impact it has on productivity and the bottom line should be an interesting indication to all Americans of the greater disastrous effects that institutional racism has had and is having on the nation’s well-being.

While tech seeks to address this issue (and I hope meaningfully), the entire American population has an opportunity to fix a fundamental flaw (or rather mis-justice) at the core of Americanism.

I am going to ask you to join the discussion, be a part of the movement, become an ally, be a part of the solution as an individual.

This is hard, brave and rewarding work.

Are you up for it?