This past weekend, a memo by a Google employee criticizing the company’s diversity goals and practices was leaked to the media. The memo presents sexist and thoroughly debunked views about women, and the ensuing conversation about diversity has been both heated and informative. I have found, however, that there’s something mostly missing from this conversation: a moral case for diversity.
A Few Facts About Inequality in Tech
Let’s try to briefly summarize a problem that was centuries in the making: women and people of color are grossly underrepresented in software development jobs. Looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics data, you can see that women are underrepresented by a factor of 2.3, black people by a factor of 2.9, and Hispanic/Latino people by a factor of 3.5.
To put these figures in a different perspective, Hispanic/Latino people make up 16% of the work force, and have just under 5% of the software jobs, and all the while, companies are clamoring to hire software developers.
Keep in mind that software jobs dominate the job-desirability rankings based on whatever metric you can imagine: salary, demand, availability, and expected growth. I may be biased because I love what I do, but careers in software exist in the uncommon intersection of “pays well,” “fun,” and “available everywhere.”
If we lived in an equitable society where access to quality education wasn’t determined in part by a person’s wealth or race and negative gender stereotypes didn’t deter women from pursuing STEM careers, would we see these same disparities? Of course not! There are social justice issues lurking beneath these cut and dry statistics that involve systemic inequality.
“Diversity Is Good for Business”… And?
However, social equity is completely disconnected from how people argue for diversity in tech. If you Google “why diversity is important in tech,” the first ten articles lead with a variant of “It’s good for business.” It’s worth noting that a foundational premise of the now-infamous memo is that diversity only matters in terms of its value to Google as a profit-driven enterprise. Google lists diversity as a value sans justification, so that premise might not be wrong.
In my view, “valuing diversity” requires a moral argument that acknowledges inequity. Otherwise, “We value diversity” means nothing more than “We recognize that we’ll be more successful if we’re less homogenous.” And in an industry with gross disparity where white and male are often (wrongly) considered default, that’s akin to saying someone is valued for their other-ness—not their experience, skill, or work ethic. Here’s a great example of how that sort of message is harmful.
In fact, diversity is a value that comes from a group, not an individual, even though individual identities are valuable. When I say that I value diversity, what I really mean is that:
I value social equity and equal access, of which diversity is a key indicator.
I’m proud that where I work, we understand diversity is more than just a “good business” principle. If you think valuing diversity means something else that is incompatible with my meaning, please leave a comment describing your view.
What Can We Do?
Despite the ubiquity of the “make the world a better place” mantra, software companies aren’t going to fix social inequity alone; this is a gigantic problem that requires help from every direction. But what we can do is analyze and change the way we conduct our business to counteract inequity built into our culture.
At Atomic, we’ve done this by modifying our job interview process, creating gender-neutral job descriptions, changing our compensation review process, and improving our parental leave policy. We definitely have room to improve, and we’re working on it!
Now that I’ve established a case that caring about diversity means caring about it from a moral perspective, I’m prepared to offer a list of ways you can start doing something about it:
- Find people who represent diversity in your industry, and start listening to what they have to say and amplifying their voices. Allow me to start by practicing what I preach: read this thread by Sarah Mei, a software developer and this thread by Jessica Kirkpatrick, a data scientist. Mei’s list is better than mine, and reproducing it here would be borderline plagiarism. Kirkpatrick offers insight into how women in our industry are affected by things like the Google memo.
That’s it. That’s the whole list. If you have other resources that you find helpful, please leave a comment to add to this list. The solution to this problem comes from listening to and empowering people who you want to be better represented in your industry, and using that feedback to counteract the barriers presented to them. If you aren’t actively following and listening to people of color & women in your industry, and you believe that you value diversity, then you may need to reflect on what that means.