Illustration: jessica siao

TThis was the year of collusion. Or, at least, the year we finally started to talk about it.

You can’t turn on the TV or glance at your social media feed without coming across the word — it has insinuated itself into our national dialogue and launched a million tweets. But we’re not here to talk about Russian spies, corrupt campaign officials, or the 2016 election at all. It’s time to talk about 2017 as the year when collusion was exposed in the tech world and beyond, and things will (hopefully) never be the same.

We have worked at the intersection of diversity and tech for many years, and we have heard all the arguments for why it’s been such a stubborn nut to crack. Big tech firms like Google and Facebook have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on diversity programs that have scarcely moved the needle. Why is it that an industry that prides itself on being the perfect meritocracy seems to generate talent only from specific racial, gender, and geographic backgrounds? The answer is collusion.

At its core, collusion refers to opaque cooperation for self-serving purposes, and frankly, there’s no better way to describe the hundreds of factors that give certain groups unfair advantages over others. Sure, hidden biases are an important component, but there is ample evidence that powerful forces have colluded to keep the status quo in place, shutting out talent from virtually all other backgrounds.

Here are just some of the ways that tech colludes to keep biases in place and the myth of the meritocracy alive.

It Starts Early

  • Schools are not created equal. Our research has found an inverse relationship between the number of computer science courses and the proportion of black and brown students in public schools, ensuring that some students over others start out with access to the tech pipeline.
  • Teacher expectations differ from student to student. Students of color and girls of all backgrounds are tracked early on out of math and science fields.
  • Wealthier students have access to all kinds of after-school STEM programs, while those with fewer means often spend their high school evenings working.
  • Expensive SAT prep and other college admissions–related programs provide unfair advantages for some students over others, allowing students from more affluent families to jump the line in front of talented but poorly prepared low-income students.

Collusion Continues into Higher Education

  • Unpaid internships open doors to skills, training, and networks throughout college but are available only to those who don’t need paying jobs to fund their education.
  • Professors are disproportionately white or Asian and male, particularly in the STEM fields, which sends subtle but powerful messages about who “belongs” in the room, and therefore who stays in STEM majors.
  • Wealthier students have access to private tutors to give them an edge, while students of lesser means may have trouble even accessing free campus study groups because of their work schedules.
  • Graduating from a top school is a major advantage in a job search, even though the “best” schools are usually a better indicator of family wealth than of ability.
  • Graduating without debt provides a lot of freedom to begin working at entry-level tech jobs, while those saddled with college loans or who need to help support their families are far more limited in their job options.

It Gets Worse in the Workplace

  • Tech firms send recruiters to top-10 schools and virtually ignore the cold applications from graduates of other universities.
  • Résumé bias is real. Studies show that even with identical CVs, those with “black-sounding” names get 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with “white-sounding” names.
  • Promotion practices are riddled with documented biases that favor white and male employees being promoted on perceived potential, whereas underrepresented men of color and all women are promoted after proving themselves.
  • Pay gaps by gender and race are real and documented and make a big difference in who stays in a job and who leaves. African-American and Latinx women will take many more decades than white women to achieve pay parity with white men.
  • Sexual harassment, bias, and discrimination are rampant in tech, making the workplace a nightmare for many women and LGBT employees.
  • Women of all backgrounds and underrepresented people of color cite toxic, unfair, and hostile work environments as the primary reasons they leave tech jobs.

The path to a tech career looks very different for a wealthy white man than it does for a lower-income woman of color. Yet the concept of a tech meritocracy allows the privileged to believe their successes are based on brains and work, rather than the advantages they enjoy at every step. It also tells women and people of color that they only have themselves to blame when disparities prove to be a stumbling block to the tech career of their dreams.

The myth of the tech meritocracy itself is perhaps the biggest manifestation of collusion of all — an origin story that obscures the obvious inequalities that define the sector.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: It begins by speaking out.

For decades, the canaries in the coal mine have been women of color. The first sexual harassment suits in the 1970s came from African-American women. In 1991, Anita Hill forever changed the national conversation around harassment when she spoke out with her personal story — and it came at great expense to her career. More recently, in the tech world, women like Erica Joy Baker, Tracy Chou, and Ellen Pao have risked their career paths to expose systemic bias and gross discrimination in Silicon Valley.

This year, women of color were again the biggest heros: The first five women to step forward telling their stories of victimization by powerful venture capitalists have all been people of color. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of work before tech is “fixed,” but finally women are speaking up and being believed.

Imagine expanding this practice to every stage of the pipeline, exposing the shared assumptions and values that allow folks to look the other way at harassment, to outright deny that there’s a systemic bias problem, or to keep propping up all the practices that got us here. Together we can fix the unchallenged privilege that permeates every aspect of tech and put mechanisms in place to truly reward merit and skills rather than pedigrees and proxies. Most of us are standing on the shoulders of giants rather than pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The thing about collusion is that it only persists when it remains shrouded in silence. Like all secrets, it’s inherently fragile.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

Mitch & Freada Kapor

Written by

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

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