Tracey Ross is an associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress and co-host of TalkPoverty Radio.
It is no secret that the tech sector has a diversity problem. According to Google’s most recent employment data, just 1 percent of the company’s tech staff is black, 2 percent are Hispanic, and 82 percent of its tech workers worldwide are male. Over the past few years, companies like Google have faced pressure to confront their lack of diversity, but the myth that the sector is a true meritocracy — where hard work and the best ideas are rewarded — seems to endure.
In a piece for Forbes (which was later deleted) tech writer Brian S. Hall declared, “If you aren’t able to make it [in Silicon Valley], it’s almost certainly not because of any bias.” Instead, he asserted it is due to a “refusal to put in the hard work.”
Similarly, many companies claim that they simply don’t have a diverse pool of qualified applicants to choose from. While it is true that white and Asian men, who are overrepresented in the tech industry, have greater access to — and take advantage of — technical education, this is just part of the story.
According to a USA Today study, black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering students graduate from top universities at twice the rate that top tech companies hire them. And at UC Berkeley and Stanford University — located in the heart of Silicon Valley — half of introductory computer science students are women. While the pool of applicants may be limited, there are clearly qualified women and graduates of color who are being overlooked for tech positions — unless criteria beyond skill set are being used to make hiring decisions.
To address its own diversity problems, the tech company Intel set a goal last year that 40 percent of all new hires would be women or underrepresented minorities — an unprecedented level of representation for the company. Recently, the company announced that 43.1 percent of its new hires came from underrepresented backgrounds. Intel Chief Executive Brian Krzanich explained, “If the pipeline was such a big problem, I would have come back as a failure there.” So what’s going on in Silicon Valley?
I recently spoke with Freada Kapor Klein, an investor in social impact start-ups who explained that Silicon Valley’s diversity problem emerges from mistaking certain traits, such as personality type or alma mater, for actual skills. “You don’t necessarily have to be biased against somebody. You can be biased in favor of somebody,” she explained. To Klein’s point, studies show that “ingroup favoritism” — or favoring people or groups similar to us — is responsible for many discriminatory outcomes, from relying on homogenous employee referral networks for new hires to giving more favorable performance reviews to employees with similar personality traits as you.
This also explains why investors overwhelmingly support tech companies founded by white men. At the 2008 National Venture Capital Association’s annual meeting, venture capitalist John Doerr described the factors associated with successful entrepreneurs. “They all seem to be white, male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in — which was true of Google — it was very easy to decide to invest,” he explained.
Such biases are not unique to the tech sector. Research shows that applicants with “black-sounding” names receive fewer calls for interviews than those with identical resumes and white-sounding names. Fortunately, leaders in the tech industry are beginning to recognize that employing tech workers and supporting tech entrepreneurs from various backgrounds are critical to meet the needs of a diverse nation. For example, Ana Roca-Castro’s experience growing up as an English language learner helped her develop Plaza Familia, the first bilingual education platform for Spanish-speaking students, as well as their families and teachers. And Frederick Hutson’s experience in prison inspired him to create Pigeon.ly, an app that provides a low-cost alternative to prison phone calls, ensuring that low-income people can afford to stay in touch with incarcerated family members, reducing the likelihood of recidivism.
Still, the desire to paint the tech sector as a true meritocracy, though naive, is understandable. Compared with other sectors, such as banking, where certain degrees or family connections are near requirements, tech seems relatively accessible. The fact that someone can be a self-taught coder, have one good idea, drop out of college and leave his or her mark on the world makes tech a particularly seductive industry. In her book “Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age,” Professor Alice Marwick writes: “The myth of the entrepreneur is so popular because it aligns with core American values. For example, American culture places a high value on the ‘self-made man’ and the rags-to-riches story of Horatio Alger.” The tech sector makes the “American Dream” seem like a possibility, even if it fails to recognize the level of privilege needed to dream in the first place.
Further, in our collective imagination, technology is a transcendent force that ushers in the future. The industry itself is built on the desire to disrupt the status quo and imagine a new and better world into existence. Such values bear the risk of a romanticized view of the world and a degree of self-righteousness among those in the know. Joe Green, a former college roommate of Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, told the New Yorker, “People in tech, when they talk about why they started their company, they tend to talk about changing the world.” He went on to explain that unlike politics, which is transactional and inauthentic, technology is transparent and data-driven. Such factors are a recipe for a fair industry where good ideas have a shot and the best and brightest have a chance to leave their mark on the world. Exposing meritocracy in tech as a myth destroys this fantasy and renders the sector no better than politics.
Despite the sector’s shortcomings, technology really can change the world. At a time when Black Lives Matter activists are utilizing Twitter as an organizing tool, the power of technology to support social change is on full display. Yet the sector remains bound by its biases.