Reframing the diversity issue to its -ism roots

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 3, 2015
Diversity doesn't stop at gender. It is a much broader topic with its roots in pervasive forms of inequality that are not going away.

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Last year, Derek duPreez described Twitter's diversity position as 'pathetic.' It just got a whole lot worse. Thomas Otter posted a link to a TechCrunch article that should break the hearts of anyone who cares about diversity. It reads: Twitter Engineering Manager Leslie Miley Leaves Company Because Of Diversity Issues. Miley is an African American who was born and raised in Silicon Valley. His departure means there are no black people in leadership positions at Twitter but it also brings into question the broad problem of diversity. Regardless of gender, I see this as a problem of racism when it comes to an understanding of non-white people in the workplace. It is not the only -ism at play here. Let me explain.

I remember my first day in sociology class. Our professor asked the question: 'Who among is not racist?' My hand shot up. After all, I live in and have lived in a mixed race family for many years. We joke that it's like the league of Caribbean and Asian nations with representation from St Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica, India and Pakistan with a touch of Romanian and Celtic Scots thrown in alongside the other minority whites that claim to be British but, like me, are mongrels as well.

Given that mix, how could that racist description possibly apply to me? Yet I was to quickly learn that regardless of race, we are all rac-ist to some degree, whether overtly conscious of the fact or otherwise. The only way you can show otherwise is when your inclusion statistics reflect the population at large and that simply isn't happening.

But then the moment you start doing that kind of analysis you run into other problems that go way beyond employing an appropriate balance between one or other ethnicities. In my critique of Safra Catz discussion around diversity I said:

Similarly, I welcome Safra Catz, co-CEO commitment to diversity although I do wish that the parade of executives in tech companies talking about this topic would widen the scope beyond gender inequality to include race, age and disability.

In reviewing articles for this story I discovered that while gender topics get plenty of airing, race and ethnicity is rarely discussed in the context of computer engineering. Yes, it gets an occasional mention but there is little by way of conversation. Age-ism? Forget it. And as for disability, those with special needs might as well be invisible.

None of that should surprise anyone. As I discovered in my years studying the social sciences, those who are part of a minority are invariably subject to a form of silencing that renders them largely impotent. Attempting to hold thoughtful and compassionate conversations on any of these topics is almost impossible because these are politically larded.

Erika Baker provides the example that proves the point. Again, from TechCrunch:

“I don’t have a concern that if I speak out about stuff that is a little bit controversial, that it’s going to have a negative effect on my job,” Baker said. “That’s a privilege that I have. That’s a huge privilege. A lot of people don’t have that. Like, if they speak out, there’s a likelihood they’ll get fired. It’s a shitty thing, but it’s a real thing in their jobs, for other people. I don’t have that, so I’m going to make use of that privilege. This needs to be talked about, so we’re going to talk about it. It’s going to be a topic — I’m going to make it one.”

Since when was raising a point like this a privilege? Isn't it a fundamental human right?

It would be easy to get fired up by Miley's case. Personally, I find it tragic that someone feels so strongly about the race problem that they should choose to resign from a position of leadership where they might have been able to make a difference. But then having 'Twitter engineer' on your resumé is no bad thing at a time when engineers are in short supply.

Before we get carried away with the idea this is a black-brown- (name your color here) - white thing, it is worth considering that some of the large Indian firms have exactly the same problem. I know of one company where, if you're not from the right caste, you have almost zero chance of promotion. When I brought this up, some people were horrified but not surprised. Solving for any of these issues is a massive problem. I'll speak from experience about the reality of addressing the topic.

In the early days of diginomica, I took a good amount of personal criticism because, at the time, we were the archetypal bunch of middle aged white guys. That's changed a lot in the last year but at the time, my reasoning was that our interest is never about race, gender or any other 'thing' but only about ability and talent. That's Twitter's reasoning as well. That reasoning doesn't cut any ice with some people. I get that but the reality is that it is genuinely difficult to find talented folk from diverse groups of people.

In a very recent conversation with colleagues, I bemoaned the fact that I am seeing no new faces at most technology conferences where the AR/PR folk have an interest in inviting independent people like myself. Instead, the circuit is becoming something of an old boys (and occasionally girls) club. That cannot be right for the long term. Renewal among this group is vital to the continued balance of talent in the media/analyst community. Having said that, 'our' group is among the most diverse I know. Even so, the diversity issue is more than skin deep.

The stats used as evidence of the lack of diversity in race/ethnicity illustrate the problem very well. It's not just that in populations where diverse students are graduating in increasing numbers but not ending up represented in tech companies. It is that the percentage of people graduating from non-white backgrounds is unrepresentative of wider populations. In short, the problem currently under discussion is merely reflective of a pre-selected form of -ism that starts with graduation but has its roots in a more generalized inequality.

I can, for example, think of many cases where non-white people missed out on education for one reason or another and would love to find their way back to both education and, eventually, jobs in technology.  With very few exceptions, the routes available to them are almost non-existent. Until that problem is fixed then the industry's diversity issues will struggle to improve. I also think about those on the autism spectrum who have extraordinary difficulty in socializing yet whose intense focus is an asset for computer programming tasks. And then I think about those of us who are reaching retirement and whose many years of experience are not being captured for the benefit of generations who will follow.

Is it any wonder that we keep repeating the mistakes of the past?

The sad fact is that more than 20 years after I studied the social sciences, the same problems I learned about have changed very little. We are still mired in numerous forms of -ism that are incredibly difficult to tackle with any sense of purpose. The hope is that at least a growing awareness of the problems and the continuing shedding of light on the topics represents the start of conversations we should all be having.

Oh - and setting targets for employment is NOT the answer. That's a whole different debate around forced diversity that I contend is just, plain, wrong.

Images via Medium and from Twitter HQ

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