Beyond the Pipeline: Expanding the Conversation on Tech Diversity
Nuance doesn’t play well in large groups. Gatherings are too often derailed or misrepresented by those with the loudest voices in the room. And any collection of civic-minded, concerned folks is a precious opportunity for real engagement to happen, one that shouldn’t be squandered simply because a few opinionated speakers got ahold of a microphone. But as long as people have different styles of communication, the problem of capturing the moderate views of the majority will always be a challenge for our community leaders. Here at A Fourth Act, we want to better understand communities as a whole, not just those who are the loudest. The voices in-between matter, and are often drowned out.
Recently we took our app, Harvis, to City Club of Portland’s Friday Forum. City Club members meet weekly to host discussions with a rotating group of panelists about topics of interest to the community with the goal of increasing civic engagement. “Digital Inclusion and Tech Diversity” was the the topic for the discussion we joined, and while it was a typical City Club event in many ways, the addition of a large projector broadcasting live feedback from Harvis brought a fresh energy to the room.
Guests at dining tables were immediately greeted with pamphlets explaining what Harvis is and how they could utilize swipe gestures on their smart phones to give feedback during the event. Their real-time engagement was visualized by duo-green and red color ripples from Harvis Pond. This new feature allows users to not only share support or express dissent, but also to gauge the overall feelings of others (the more ripples on the pond, the more engagement is happening.)
Friday Forum meetings are attended by members and non-members alike, and are simultaneously broadcast on OPB Radio and Portland Community Media. The setup necessitates a structured dialog, and while there’s opportunity for audience engagement, it’s limited to a brief Q&A session where only City Club members can take the mic. Non-members have to write in their questions on a notecard and hope that a moderator selects them.
As panelists from Intel, Elemental, ScaleUp Partners, and Multnomah County Library began their discussion, which touched on topics like the myth of the meritocracy in tech and the importance of digital inclusion, attendees began testing out Harvis. The full demographics of who participated, and how much, were also recorded by the app. City Club members and non-members alike both utilized Harvis.
Thanks to the real-time feedback from Harvis Pond, it was easy to visualize what portions of the discussion resonated with the room. Affirming green ripples from Harvis lit up the screen when panelist Vailey Oehlke addressed the library’s initiatives to bring digital access to all patrons. Moments of disagreement were also much more visible, like when panelist Sam Blackman brought the discussion back to the pipeline. He said “There’s a lack of supply, to some degree, in terms of how many women are graduating from universities, how many minorities are graduating with the right degrees that we’re hiring for. So this is not going to be transformative overnight.” This statement caused the most red ripples of the day, but without the projector beaming back the room’s dissent, it’s hard to imagine how any of the panelists or moderators would have registered that such dissent had even occurred.
Beyond the swipe up, swipe down, gestures that attendees could use to submit feedback, Harvis also prompted users to supply comments with a number of questions such as “What does this topic of digital inclusion and tech diversity mean to you?” During the brief Q&A, the moderator read a relevant comment submitted via Harvis that said “Issues with the pipeline aren’t limited to graduates or programs. Women and POC are graduating but the culture of the industry knocks them out early.” This response to Sam Blackman then proceeded to draw out a greater discussion on the role company culture has to play in inclusivity and diversity in tech. The “most agreed-upon” comment of the day resulted in Dwanye Johnson’s response to this issue when he said, “I grapple with what you just said because at the end of the day, there always been quite a few people that has skills to do this work. And I think the challenge has been can they get a seat at the table. Can they get their voices heard?”
In many ways the experience at City Club mirrored the challenges facing the tech industry today. As welcomed and necessary as the growing number of diversity initiatives are, the solutions can’t be found without including the voices of the real experts: those who experience the gap. As always when we see Harvis in action, we feel encouraged by witnessing more perspectives represented in conversations that are often dominated by a few voices. The data we collected during this engaging event clearly showed that many in the audience don’t believe that the pipeline concern is the primary reason for the lack of representation of minorities and women. Our hope is that by surfacing their knowledge and amplifying their voices, we can start addressing the critical issues of gender and racial bias in the tech industry that forces talented female and minority employees to leave.
You can watch City Club of Portland’s Friday Forum: Digital Inclusion and Tech Diversity and also review the report we generated for City Club.
By Rachel Bracker