Friday, October 7, 2016

Tech Sector's Diversity Problem: White People Still Aren't Listening

Description: A bar graph shows a demographic breakdown of employees at tech companies. Apple is 80% men, Microsoft and Google are 83% men,  Facebook is 84% men and Twitter is 90% men. Continuing the demographic breakdown, Apple employees are 54% white, 21 percent are Asian, 6 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are black and 165 are other.

The above graph from a Mother Jones article about diversity in the technology industry in general and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's outreach work in Silicon Valley in particular last year showed that for all the publicized diversity initiatives, tech has a LONG way to go before achieving any sort of equality or parity. So, a little over a year later, what's changed?

Not much.

Twitter has historically been the worst of the high-profile tech companies, with an employee workforce that's 90% male, and majority white, with Black employees making up just 1 percent of the workforce.  Janet Van Huysse, who was the Vice President of Diversity for Twitter spoke in 2014 about working to improve diversity. In 2015,  with Twitter no further along aside from very vague plans to increase hiring “marginalized groups” in their US offices, Van Huysse resigned after Twitter's numbers didn't even budge after 2 diversity initiatives and the traditional university graduate application rush.

Van Huysse-- a white woman-- was replaced by Jeffrey Simonoff as Vice President of Diversity. Simonoff is a middle-aged white dude.


It gets worse.

Leslie Miley wrote about his departure from Twitter due in no small part to the racism that went on behind closed doors even as the company benefitted from use by citizens and activists in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement . An excerpt :
Twitter’s issues with growth and engagement and the issues with internal diversity are somewhat related. The over-reliance on a limited number of schools and workplaces for talent has caused a type of group think to dominate. Any change would be approved by people who all think alike. There was very little diversity in thought and almost no diversity in action. To quote Mark S. Luckie “Without a variety of voices contributing ideas, the workplace becomes a homogenized environment where potential brilliance may never be achieved. Diversity should rightly be seen as a benefit to growth, not an obstruction to avoid.” For some at Twitter, diversity is an obstruction to avoid.
 Once Miley left, Twitter management was left without any directors or vice presidents of color in any of the product management or engineering divisions.

While Twitter may have the most egregious examples, as evidenced by the graph at this article's beginning, it's not the only big-name tech company to have a serious diversity problem. Instead of listening to people of color, though, many tech companies have been hiring teams like "Paradigm"-- a company that “uses social science to increase diversity”... run by three white women and a white man. After some bad PR, they hired one woman of color as a partner, and two women of color as consultants.

This glaring blind spot extends to some of the largest tech events, too-- even in places where ou'd least expect. The annual "Grace Hopper Celebration Of Women In Tech" didn't have any black women speaking or conducting talks. In fact, it was ZERO women of color and a few dozen white men spoke at least year's event! In fact, as this storify link points out:

500 speakers were req'd to buy tickets to conf they're speaking at for a conference heavily targeting students, & of 12,000 people who belong to a demographic that's systematically underpaid.
There are >900 confs for professionals in coding. I know of ~3 that charge speakers for tickets. GHX is one. Pay gap makes that esp uncool. Black women are paid 64% of white men. Hispanic&Latina women are paid 54% of white men. Charging to speak ENSURES under-representation.
...which is what prompted last year's NOTGHC counter-conference, organized by disaffected women engineers of color. Yeah, that's right, the whiny baby attitude of "oh, if you want diverse things, go make your own" has extended to engineering conferences, and once again when people of color DO make their own thing, they get the backlash of everything from being "not organized enough" to "being too exclusive"! GHC still charges speakers to pay, by the way.

Fellow white people, if you think that this lack of diversity only matters in boardrooms and doesn't affect people's real lives, think again. Last year at Dragon*Con, which is a sprawling nerd convention that lasts for days and temporarily takes over most of city downtown, automatic soap dispensers wouldn't detect black peoples' hands. The CEO of the soap dispenser's parent company had to admit that they never really thought to adjust the infrared sensors beyond a certain range. And if you just found out about this now, from me, a white dude? That's part of the problem!

The effects on health runs deeper than un-soaped hands. Erica Joy wrote about the effects tech culture's isolation and alienation of her as a black women impacted her health:
The stress and isolation I mentioned have really taken their toll on me. Long term stress is known to cause health issues. Not long after I started working in New York, I developed heart problems (PVC’s). About 3 years ago I started to get acne, something I’ve never had in my life. I always thought it was hormonal but now recognize that it happens when I’m stressed. The isolation and resultant loneliness have exacerbated the stress, leaving me in constant fight or flight mode… I know this: I am not my job. I am not my industry or its stereotypes. I am a black woman who happens to work in the tech industry. I don’t need to change to fit within my industry. My industry needs to change to make everyone feel included and accepted.” 
She's right, of course. Cameron Glover said it best:
Without consequences and more nuanced understanding of different perspectives and cultures, we’re left with a tech culture something akin to a leech: the best parts of marginalized workers are taken, and we are left feeling like victims and stripped of our power.

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