Why does diversity in tech need “debugging”?
I’m a software engineer — or what many refer to as a coder, developer or just a “dev”. In my almost 20 years working in the industry, I’ve have often wondered why engineers and coders tend to be white men.
In 2014, having developed an interest in film-making, I decided I wanted to explore the idea of making a short film about diversity in technology. Little did I know just how little I knew about this problem! In fact, this realisation began a journey of discovery and self-reflection that would span the next 5 years.
Fast-forward to today, and I still by no means have all the answers but I have learned a great deal. I want Debugging Diversity (both the film and this blog) to be a collection of ideas and lessons to help others champion change.
One thing I did already know before embarking on this project was just how important technology is in our world. Everywhere you look you see something that requires software: your TV, the traffic lights while driving to work and the apps on your phone that have become part of your daily life. And every piece of software was written by someone. Maybe an individual, probably a team or a whole company but written by human beings.
People who can code have a superpower. If you can code at all you already have an advantage over most people. If you can code at a professional level then you are likely being paid more than just about any other professional. And your skills will always be in high demand.
But what I had never fully appreciated is the privilege associated with understanding technology. Both the privilege attained by becoming technologically proficient and the privilege required to access opportunities in tech in the first place.
If you’ve worked in technology you know that most software engineers are men. And most of those are probably white. The numbers vary from place-to-place and depending on who’s reporting them, but by and large, technology is a white-male dominated industry.
According to the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT)*, female participation in computer science is only around 26%. It gets worse when we consider both seniority and minorities.
For example, women in leadership roles account for roughly 6%; Black/African American women only 3% and Latina/Hispanic women barely more than 1% of the total technology workforce in the USA.
These numbers are pretty terrible but what’s worse, despite a growing awareness of the problem, female participation rates in technology have stayed fairly constant. In fact, they’ve dipped slightly from 29% in 2003 to 26% recorded in 2017.
Why does this matter? Aside from the obvious moral issues of equity and privilege, improving diversity in computing has practical business and economic benefits.
Diverse teams are more productive
According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians while companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely. Put simply: diverse teams are more profitable.
Diverse teams perform better because of a phenomenon psychologists call the fluency heuristic — the idea that similar people tend to have similar views. But homogenous groups don’t tend to uncover all the options when making a decision or building a strategy. In diverse teams, differences of opinion are more common and often lead to better outcomes. While homogenous teams feel easier, they aren’t necessarily best for performance.
Diverse teams build better products
There’s a common saying among startup folks: “You are not your user”. And while this is certainly true for many individuals it shouldn’t be true for entire teams of engineers and yet sadly this is so often the case.
When teams of people build products for users with different needs to their own problems usually arise. Think of a sighted person designing a tool for someone with limited vision or a male designing a female health app. While there can be good outcomes in these scenarios results tend to be far better when those building technologies represent the groups who use them.
The concept of diversity is a complex one — far more complex than I had ever imagined when I started this project 5 years ago. And if diversity is hard to understand, debugging it is even harder.
I decided fairly early on in the film project to focus its content on gender diversity. Not because it is in any way more important than other forms of diversity or indeed intersectionality but simply because its a starting point and one that I felt personally best equipped to understand.
This blog, on the other hand, I imagine being much broader in scope. And I welcome article submissions, comments and feedback — hopefully from folks with far more knowledge and expertise than I have. If you’d like to contribute please submit your details here.
The Debugging Diversity Film Indiegogo campaign will be running from June 17 and into July. We welcome your support!
*DuBow, W. & Pruitt, A.S. (2018) NCWIT Scorecard: The Status of Women in Technology. Boulder, CO: NCWIT.