Debugging Diversity in Tech

Photo Credit: Diversability, an incredible organization where I had the honor of speaking recently.

When I received my first internship offer during college, some male classmates “joked” that it was because I was a woman, which made it “so easy” for me.

When I went to my TA’s office hours because I was stuck on an engineering problem, he told me — with the best of intentions — not to feel bad, because “girls usually take longer” to understand concepts of that type.

I’m Indian and was raised in Bangalore. I work at a tech company, but not in the technical support department. While I learned English at the same time I did Hindi, I am fluent in both (or, as I’ve been told, I speak “good English”). Unfortunately, both of these things frequently surprise people because of the way I look.

My name is Anita Singh. I’m an Android engineer at Shyp and the company’s first Diversity & Inclusion Advocate. Experiences like the ones I just shared are unfortunately not unique.

It’s well known that women — along with other minorities not confined to gender or race — are underrepresented in STEM fields. Experiences like mine do nothing but reinforce stereotypes, thereby making a bad problem worse. But why do they still happen? I wish I had the courage at the time to speak up to such ludicrous statements. Hindsight truly is 20/20.

This post is the first in a series that I hope will raise awareness about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. Instead of just pointing out problems, I hope to eventually suggest solutions to an issue that’s gotten so much attention, with not enough action.

Women represent roughly half of the U.S. workforce, but only ~18 percent of computer science graduates and ~25 percent of technical jobs. Things are even more bleak when looking at data related to race. Of the few companies that have disclosed diversity figures, African Americans and Latinos make up ~4–5 percent of the tech workforce. But, they are ~12 and ~16 percent of the U.S. workforce, respectively. After a few quick searches, I couldn’t even find any available statistics on people with disabilities or the LGBT community in tech.

The topic is certainly hot — a Google News search for, “diversity in tech,” yields over 11 million results. But, while plenty of companies are trying to move the needle, some efforts do more harm than good.

I’ve heard stories of recruiters referring to candidates directly as potential “diversity hires.” I can’t be the only one who views this as a damaging label. I don’t want to get a job so I can help a company look good; I’m fine with being a “regular hire,” which I assume would be based on my technical abilities.

Highly qualified people have told me they’ve been rejected from a company on the basis of not being a “culture fit.” I think we can agree this could be a good catch-all phrase to use in place of being “too old” or “too international.”

Why should anyone be forced to consider themselves as the basis of how others should be? I’ve seen executives of prominent companies openly say that they don’t want to “lower the bar” to hire women and people of color, implying that diversity is synonymous with lowering their standards. *Slow clap*

It’s also frustrating when companies speak about different groups in isolation from each other, rather than focusing on diversity as a whole. This often results in retention being ignored. The intersection of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, etc is very real and when companies focus diversity initiatives on one community — say, women — efforts can get lost and go against the idea of being truly inclusive.

The truth is this: Silicon Valley will never reach its full potential if most of its people have the same approaches to problem solving or ideation. And, guess what? Neither will your company.

But don’t despair — there are many organizations, companies and people trying to fix the disparity in effective ways, and I want to share some of the best practices that I’ve seen, and come up with new ones together. My upcoming posts will discuss the common myths of minorities in tech, damaging stereotypes, and what we can all do to make things change now. Feel free to let me know if you have ideas in the comments section below or get in touch with me on twitter (anitas3791).

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/debugging-diversity-tech-anita-singh? on February 11, 2016.

Another cross-post coming right up : https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/debunking-myths-race-gender-tech-anita-singh?trk=prof-post