by Rhys Evans
Until a few years ago my experience of working in tech was very white, very middle-class, very sarcastic, and very male. This is the story of how, now that I work in a more diverse place, my eyes are open to the failures of that situation, and that diversity is not just something for excluded groups to care about.
Those who know me well (there are 3 of you) will testify that I don’t like talking about sci-fi, football, or even technology really, so I was alien to this world. However, I got used to it, accepted it as normal and developed a blindness to its problems. To quote The Shawshank Redemption:
“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em. Then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
Which brings me to StackOverflow’s recent (well, it was, when I first drafted this) shocking survey results — developers don’t think diversity is important! To be exact, 30.4% of respondents rated it the least important factor in assessing a potential employer (the next closest, financial performance, received only 14.1%). On the opposite end of the spectrum, only 1.6% make it their highest priority.
I have no idea how this compares to other industries, but almost a third rating diversity as least important does seem high. Particularly considering that some of the other people/fluffy options were more favoured, e.g. office culture was only rated least important by 3.0% of respondents. (As an aside, the raw, anonymized, data is available to dig further into the results — I’d be interested to see what the percentages are among men/women, white/non-white etc.).
Recently, my colleague Dora referenced the survey in her talk on diversity in tech, ‘Where are the women?’. It reminded me of the outraged reactions to the survey at the time, and I thought it was high time I stopped being shy, and admitted that, earlier in my career, I would’ve probably put diversity very low down on my priority list too. Not through any reluctance to work with under-represented groups, but the possibility of working in such an environment seemed highly unlikely… unthinkable almost. How can you rationally rate diversity as being a high priority when experience tells you it’s never gonna happen?
Well, for all those years I was wrong. And if you’re reading this as one of the 30.4%, and dismissed the hoo-ha surrounding the results as liberal snowflake lefty whining… well, you’re wrong too.
Firstly, it isn’t an impossible dream to work in a diverse tech company. It’s not necessarily easy to achieve — the industry hasn’t done itself any favours over the last 40 years — but with a bit of effort teams can become more diverse. At the FT we work with code bootcamps, such as Makers Academy and CodeYourFuture, who already do a lot of effective work to encourage under-represented groups into tech. We also try to alter our profile to appeal to people who don’t think of themselves as ‘code ninjas’, and place an emphasis on trying to be an inclusive place to work, with a work-life balance that will appeal to those not totally obsessed with code.
So, it’s not a lala-land moon-wish to work in a diverse workplace. But why would you want to? Why would you rate diversity above other criteria when looking for a new job, or deciding how you recruit to your current company?
There are lots of arguments out there around the benefits to the business. Also about a duty to support a fair and equal society, being an ally and all that. All those points I agree with, but I can’t help feeling they are only really persuasive for people who are already somewhat persuaded. So I’m going to appeal to a simpler, more personal argument for diverse workplaces — you will be happier.
By and large developers don’t fit the stereotype of antisocial nerd. That’s true of where I work now and my contention is that, beneath the surface, it’s true everywhere I’ve worked. The difference being that at the FT, where diversity has been worked hard at for years, the people are so wonderfully different from one another that accidentally falling into the trap of conforming to the norm — that Shawshank Redemption “insitutionalization” I mentioned earlier — is impossible; there is no norm. There isn’t this invisible template that you find yourself fitting into. I can honestly say the FT is the first tech job I’ve had where I feel like I can really be myself, and that’s a wonderful thing. Diversity plays a big part in that.
But the dev cultures which have existed for decades won’t disappear overnight, and they can be — often unintentionally — hostile to newcomers. Even at the FT, where we strive to be inclusive, it’s definitely still a problem. I spoke to a female code bootcamp graduate we’d recently taken on, and she was convinced we practise positive discrimination (we don’t — she, and all the other women we’ve hired, have just been the best candidates). It really brought home to me how big a cultural shift still needs to happen. So to those new to tech at the FT, or any other company, who feel they don’t belong, or deserve to be there… I feel it needs reiterating — it’s us, not you and, to paraphrase LCD Soundsystem, ‘We can change, we can change, we can change, we can change… if it helps you work in tech’.