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If You Don’t See Someone, Say Something And Help Them Belong (Part 1)

Facial Recognition algorithms oftentimes fail those people who are under-represented within the high-tech engineering companies programming the AI (photo courtesy of https://hub.packtpub.com/)

We live in a world of “AI,” ranging from automatic soap dispensers and hand driers in our public restrooms to self-driving cars on the street. However, there is a problem waiting to be solved in this space: diversity.

One search for “facial recognition and race” will turn up copious examples of AI getting it wrong — surveillance technology, such as FBI or ICE algorithms misidentifying Latinx or dark-skinned individuals as criminals, passport security software mistaking or even rejecting facial features predominantly associated with Black individuals, public restroom soap dispensers failing to activate with specific skin colors, and self-driving cars failing to detect dark-skinned pedestrians.

How does this disparity exist in such an integrated society, one may ask? The answer lies within the question itself: How integrated of a society are we, really?

How woke are we?

American author and historian, Ibram X. Kendi, investigates the current disparity between and within racial groups in his new book How To Be An Anti-Racist. Kendi covers a wide-range of topics, including Colorism and the Skin Color Paradox. This is the phenomenon where darker-skinned individuals experience greater inequalities or socio-economic disadvantages within any race or culture: Black-skinned/African-American, Asian, Filipino, Middle Eastern, Indian.

Individuals might rise above this socially ingrained bias, ignore the deep-seated cultural prejudices, succeed in their endeavors, and make space for others. However, it will take more time and more effort to change inequities within group dynamics, such as the criminal justice system, social policies, and workforce industries, such as high technology, where there are half as many African Americans and Latinx in tech as there are in the rest of the private sector.

Uncomfortable Conversations

Racial and gender inequality is a sensitive subject to talk or write about. But these uncomfortable conversations are part of the process to counteract ingrained inequalities. Unconsciously, even innocently, we pass these inequalities down like family heirlooms. We get overwhelmed by the insurmountability of historical, social, educational injustice. We do not have a tangible enemy to engage.

Why is technology failing non-White males? Simple and innocent negligence and thoughtlessness. Lack of perspective. And because Failure Is ALWAYS An Option.

Because when we are not being consciously inclusive, then we are being unconsciously exclusive.

Some more statistics

According to a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report on Diversity in High Tech, the combined representation of Black and Latinx tech professionals comprised just 10% of the high-tech industry. As the positions increase at the management and executive levels, these numbers decrease to under 5% representation.

Likewise, women — regardless of race or ethnicity — comprised 36% of our high-tech workforce. Of those women interviewed, two-thirds reported having to prove themselves over and over; their success discounted and their expertise questioned. 75% of Black women reported this phenomenon.

Women, particularly Black and Latinx women, are seen as angry when they fail to conform to “female stereotypes”

And 20% of the women interviewed said they felt as if they were competing with other women colleagues for “the woman spot.”

Our job is Tikkun Olam — repair or fix the world

Making Space

But how do we know if we are unconsciously excluding others?

Racial and gender inequality is a sensitive subject to talk or write about. But these uncomfortable conversations are part of the process to counteract ingrained inequalities.

How to make space

According to Jewish oral traditions, the world was created unfinished. Tikkun Olam is our (humans) job is repair or fix the world. (Photo courtesy of https://newvoices.org/2013/05/20/tikkun-olam-repairing-or-healing/)

More than half of the women interviewed reported backlash from speaking their minds directly or being outspoken or decisive. Many Black males have to change their outward disposition or way of natural communication to better fit in with their White teammates.

According to the statistical data presented above, I fit into the majority within my chosen profession. To some people, that translates to greater opportunity. To me, this translates to a greater opportunity to make space. And as a member of the Jewish faith and tradition, making space is my obligation.

תיקון עולם (Tikkun Olam)

My gender and skin tone make me outwardly appear in the majority within my profession, but I grew up as a minority within my microcosm of school and neighborhood. I dealt with anti-Semitism in middle school, college, even within past work experiences. I have been the minority regarding gender (I was the only male in a Ladies In Tech allies flash mob dance).

According to the Mishnah — the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions and rabbinical teachings — the world was created unfinished. And our (humans) job is Tikkun Olam — repair or fix the world. One way is to help make space, allow our marginalized and under-represented teammates the opportunity to thrive.

Repair the World

The only way forward is to keep having uncomfortable conversations. Point out when the products we build harm groups of individuals, inaccurately and antithetically representing our individual beliefs on disparity but accurately representing our current bias in our relatively homogenous industry. Keep pushing for greater diversity in our industry, organizations, and teams.

Greater social awareness and introducing and maintaining STEM policies throughout the education pipeline is essential to help bridge the disparity within the ever-growing high-tech sector. So is being more mindful of our team-building process — actively recruiting and advocating for the individuals these programs are designed to attract.

However, implementing workplace diversity and inclusion practices becomes meaningless if our under-represented teammates cannot be their authentic selves in the workplace if our teammates feel the need to pretend to be someone else to “fit in.”

Looking at the Individual Representing The Group

Here is an interesting Koan or thought exercise to undertake. Next time that you are in a meeting, or a scrum, or your open office area, look around at your teammates, co-workers, or acquaintances. Let your mind drift into one of several default states: that of classifying the surrounding people.

Maybe this is by gender, or race, or age, or maybe it is by job title/description, or what area of town (or suburb) they live, or whether they prefer soft or hard cheese. Perhaps you notice more similarities or more differences within your microcosmic meeting or office space. If you do, think how well you know your colleagues. Perhaps they have shared some of their fears, goals or aspirations, or even stories of failings that have helped forge who they are.

Or perhaps you do not know these things about your teammates, and this is an opportunity to connect with the people whose talents you rely upon as part of your journey to success.

Who Do You Know?

How many of these colleagues would you categorize like yourself in some fashion? How many would you categorize as “different?”

Now find two or three people like you. Or similar to each other. Caucasian men, for instance.

Making space means using your status, your privilege of status, to help let others in, nut unlike building Legos with others.

The categorization of “white males” has become another flashpoint in our modern culture. The few noisy groups or individuals who complain about or even actively disdain inclusion and diversity are actually telling their own story — a story of perceived loss.

Imagine a kindergartner building with a pile of Legos. When another student comes to play, he or she would use the same pile of Legos to build. But how does that first student react? Often times, he or she sees the act of sharing as a loss. A typical response could be “These are mine!” or “I was here first!”

The kindergartner is not conscious of his/her exclusivity, focused only on the immediate act of loss and oblivious to a future where both students can share the joy of building something greater than the limited concept only one mind could create.

In the next article in this series, I will discuss Allyship, ways we could be more consciously inclusive and make space for others.

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Drew Schillinger

Drew Schillinger

I am a Zen-gineer, coach, manager, and mindful leader whose goal is to encourage and help my teammates succeed in all their endeavors.

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