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Diversity and inclusion in tech: Where do we go from here?

Jul 10, 2020 - 15 min read
Amanda Fawcett

Against a backdrop of social unrest, conversations around diversity, inclusion, and bias have become popular topics. In the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, these discussions have been sparked in all industries with no company, person, or field left untouched. The message seems to ring loudly: we all desire to create and foster a more inclusive, safe world.

Diversity in the tech industry has been a long standing conversation with many different voices and perspectives. In a field of predominantly white, male developers, the world of tech has a long way to go, and each of us need to be part of that journey.

That’s why, today, we want to take a look at the diversity present in the tech industry and offer some critical, actionable insights into how we can all strive to build a more diverse industry. We will discuss:

Why diversity matters

We know that diversity matters. We know that companies and societies flourish when they are safe for all identities and when we listen to the wider range of human experience. Diversity is what fosters innovation and opens us up to new problems and ideas.

Together, we are able to hear other perspectives and life experiences that we miss out on when we remain isolated or homogenous. Beyond the ethical and humanitarian benefits of diversity, it also bodes well for economics, growth, and capital.

In fact, a recent study suggests that improving gender and ethnic diversity in the US tech field could create $470 - $570 billion in revenue. And in Intel’s Decoding Diversity report, they concluded that diversity generates higher market values and revenue.

So, if diversity is so important, why are we missing the mark? If you look at the top companies in Silicon Valley, it is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. In the US, women make up just 17 percent of the total tech workforce, while LatinX and Black software developers make up 6% and 3% respectively of employees in the top 75 Silicon Valley tech companies.

Just look at the recent StackOverflow study or these findings from Wired, which compares diversity reports from 2014 to 2019.

Yes, the numbers have changed slightly, but the tech industry is still suffering from a lack of diversity. There are many factors that contribute to this issue, and it stems largely from an inherited system that disproportionately prevents women and minorities from succeeding in STEM careers.

It’s important to note that these numbers don’t necessarily indicate that leaders and managers are biased, but they do suggest that the system, and all the stages along the success pipeline are.

So, what is going awry? What is broken in this inherited system of education, culture, and business practices? Let’s take a look.

Where we are failing

Failings in diversity are more complex than one person’s bias or outdated hiring practices. There are many interwoven factors that make it challenging for some to succeed in tech and easy for others.

Many of the reasons have to do with investments and capital while others, the more convert culprits, deal with the culture of tech and the educational system. To truly address the failings of diversity efforts in tech, we need to think complexly about these intersecting vectors.

Role models, leadership, and false narratives

One of the major issues for diversity in tech has to do with those in positions of power. The leadership figures, heroes, and role models for the tech industry are predominantly rich, white men. Think of the stories and narratives we tell around the tech industry. Think of the tech heroes, the innovators, and the geniuses who make up the face of the tech giants.

They’re almost all white men. Bill Gates. Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Paul Allen. Just look at Forbes’ article Eight Influential Tech Leaders.

And, if all our industry heroes and icons look a particular way, and the histories that we tell undermine the contributions of minorities, then women and people of color will remain an exception to the norms of tech rather than integral to its growth and history.

The fact of the matter is that tech has always been shaped by women and people of color. Some of the most important innovations and developments that we use today were built by people whose names we do not know. Yet, still, the role models we associate with technology are largely limited to one racial and gender identity.

This is a false narrative that highlights the accomplishments of some, while ignoring the successes of others. It isolates people of color and women from feeling like they belong in the tech industry.

Just think of the common language we use around tech: tech guys, tech geeks, coding ninjas, compiler guys, and so on. These phrases aren’t trivial; they represent a larger power struggle and ability to identify with a particular industry.

Computer science has historically been gendered male since the 1950s, even though women were some of the first coders during WWII (read up on the Women of ENIAC), yet we continue to buy this false narrative about tech leadership that focuses only on a few.

Curious about women’s contributions to tech? Check out my article The history of women in tech: changing the master narrative.

This lack of representation moves beyond the internal struggle of an underrepresented individual in the tech industry. It also shapes the investments of tech. Currently, the wealth of the tech industry largely rests in the hands of one type of person.

Of the $85 billion invested by venture capitalists in 2017, only $1.9 billion went to women-led teams. That means that only 2.2% of the wealth in the tech sector was devoted to female-led venture capital programs, so these programs and efforts remain underfunded, and the culture of underrepresentation continues.

Money is power, and power is what we need to reshape the homogenous culture of tech.

Pay gap

On top of issues of representation and role models, the pay gap is another major issue that stands in the way for diversity progress. Though it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex or race in most countries, the pay gap remains a covert form of discrimination for most workers.

Did you know that women in STEM professions make an average of $16,000 less per year than the men on their working the same job? And according to Dice, female data architects make $13,000 less than their male counterparts, database administrators make $11,000 less, data scientists make $10,000 less, and security engineers make $7,000 less.

This means that the gender pay gap is pervasive in tech, reaching multiple branches and career levels. On a wider scale, Forbes reports that women were offered between 4% and 45% less starting pay for the same job as a male counterpart, and when asked about pay, 74% of female respondents argue that this disparity directly relates to their gender identity.

Did you know that Black and LatinX employees in a STEM profession make an average of $14,000 less than their white or Asian coworkers? In the UK, this trend continues: Black, Asian, and ethnic minority employees lose out on £3.2bn per year in wages compared to white coworkers.

In fact, this issue is so widely known and experienced by Black developers, that Black developers on Hires expected almost $10,000 less for their yearly salaries. Peter Beasley, the executive director for Blacks in Technology said, “you know to ask for less because that’s your only option”.

Pay inequality is a huge issue for reshaping tech and redistributing wealth inclusively. It’s a tricky issue to address because it is often covert: many female/minority employees don’t even know they are being underpaid.

On top of that, Forbes reports that 50% of men would choose to work at a company with unequal pay, while only 1% of women reported the same answer. Those least affected are those least invested in change.

The pay gap has a devastating effect on those who are underpaid. Not only is it illegal and unethical, but it harms an individual’s financial wellbeing, traps minorities and women in lower career positions, and harms the mental health of employees.

The pay gap has a huge impact on the economic stability of minority groups through factors like student loans, retirement, and generational wealth, which is one of the most important steps for moving certain minority groups above the poverty line. The tech industry, one of the highest paying industries, has a responsibility to change these issues.

Imposter syndrome and confidence

Imposter syndrome refers to a psychological phenomenon when a high-functioning individual makes incorrect assessments of their abilities in relation to their peers. It is a fear of making mistakes, insecurity that you aren’t doing enough, and a lack of trust in your own skills. It slows down professional development and prevents a worker from advocating for higher pay and responsibilities.

It breeds feelings of inferiority and inadequacy among tech professionals, especially for minorities.

Do I belong here? Am I good enough for this job? Do I really have enough skills to do this assignment?

According to Personnel Today:

“If [a] person is different from those who tend to obtain certain roles, they may be stereotyped, or lack role models and colleagues with a similar background to admire and connect with. These insecurities can foster a powerful feeling of self-doubt, ultimately culminating in imposter syndrome.”

Imposter syndrome can deeply affect underrepresented developers in the industry. It manifests itself in ways you have probably observed: female employees over-apologizing for doing their jobs, minorities assuming that their code reviews will reveal bugs or undermining their contributions to a project, and so on.

Imposter syndrome isn’t a failing on an individual to build confidence; it is a product of an overarching unhealthy culture that favors certain identities and rewards over-confidence. It is a symptom of these larger issues.

If the culture of tech favors one type of person (the confident, genius male) and excludes minority groups from identifying as part of tech history, then minorities and women will feel that like an exception to the norm or perhaps that they are not afforded the same freedom to make mistakes.

Similarly, a major contributor to career confidence is generational wealth and success. In the education sector, first-generation students (the first people in their family to attend university) are more likely to struggle with imposter syndrome than other students.

The same is true in the professional world. If a person of color is the first of their family to venture into tech, or a female employee is the first woman in her family to work STEM careers, they are less likely to feel established and confident in their skills, even with the same training as their coworkers. There can be more self-doubt and fewer safe places to turn for advice and validation.

With a backdrop of pay gaps, implicit bias from managers or coworkers, prejudice against working mothers, discrimination against natural hairstyles, and a hyper-masculinized culture, it’s no wonder that some underrepresented minorities struggle to feel fully confident at work.

There is a whole world of experiences, from overt and covert prejudices, lying beneath the surface that we need to attune to if we want to make a change.

What we can change

Clearly, there’s an issue with diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the problem; so, what about the solution? Well, there is no golden ticket. Changing these trends will be slow and will require intentional efforts at multiple levels of power.

Here are some suggestions from research and thought-leaders on how the tech world can make strides against the issues I presented above. It’s important to note that no one person is responsible for these challenges, but every person is responsible for changing them in their own capacities.

Be the voice of change in your workplace

It’s simple. If you see these issues arise in your workplace, say something, especially if you are white and especially if you are male. Correct people on their language. If you are assigned a project, ask underrepresented groups to help you or take over.

If you hear about potential cases of discriminatory actions, trust the victim first. These small actions can have a great impact on tech culture and make your workplace a safe place for those who may feel isolated.

Data and pay transparency

Data transparency about pay is essential for overcoming the pay gap. Check out Pay Scale’s investigation into data transparency for more information. According to their findings,

“At the job level, the gender wage gap closes at all levels when women agree that their organization engages in transparent pay practices. The jump in pay equity is strongest for women in Director level roles, moving from $0.91 pay equity for women who strongly disagree that their organization is transparent to $1.00 for women who agree that their organization is transparent (9 percent).”

Your company should aim for some level of transparency about pay. Advocate for this, and ask your managers about their thoughts on pay transparency. Even just openly discussing pay with your coworkers is a great place to start. The notion that this topic is taboo contributes to the issue; so speak up!

You may not be directly affected by the pay gap, but this doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the solution.

Change hiring practices

If we want to build more diverse tech organizations, then we need to hire a more diverse workforce. Hiring practices have a huge impact on the diversity of an organization. Oftentimes, organizations put their own barriers in the way of building a more diverse workforce with things like coding assessments, candidate prioritization, or resume scanning software.

To read more on building a more diverse hiring process, check out Kevin Goldsmith’s article: Changing hiring practices for a diverse technology organization

Combat toxic culture with ongoing learning on the job

Providing a healthy ecosystem of ongoing learning for developers is a great way to aid with workplace stress, generational differences in career experience, and imposter syndrome.

Developer training that is built into the ecosystem of your organization empowers those in need to get help, answer questions, and feel invested in as an employee.

A lot of the toxic culture of the tech world is due to a hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive vision of success in technology. To combat this, we should encourage ongoing learning and view employees as people, not just machines.

There are many other ways to continue advocating for a more diverse and inclusive industry. These are just a few examples to inspire you to feel part of the solution. If you’re curious about efforts being made by companies large and small, check out the resources list below.

Encouraging examples in the field

This topic can be discouraging and feel like a hurdle we will never overcome. But half of the work is believing that change can happen. We have to have the insight that we’ve only progressed to where we are today because of conversations like these.

So, let’s look at some encouraging facts and examples of efforts that are being made in the field to prove that diverse, safe, and inclusive spaces are possible and worthwhile for us all.

  • According to Forbes, female tech entrepreneurs are able to generate 20% more revenue than their male counterparts, even when starting with 50% less capital.

  • Compared to other major tech companies, Slack has made great strides to improve their gender diversity. Women make up 31% of leaders and hold 34% of technical roles! Their reports on underrepresented minorities are triple that of peer companies like Google and Facebook.

  • Black industry leaders have been making great strides for improving diversity in the tech world. Chris Nchopa-Ayafor, the CIO of Tarrant County, Texas, built up the Information Technology Department and created a three-step process for removing unconscious bias.

  • Carlton Oneal founded LightSpeedEdu to create a space where diversity is valued at the grassroots level. He offers his suggestions for building a diverse organization here.

  • Many tech publications have released statements that they will be reserving a percentage of their publications specifically for underrepresented voices. Better Programming, for example, stated that one-third of their articles will be written by women and non-binary authors.

  • Over the years, Reddit has worked to improve their maternity leave policies and now boasts nearly a 100% return rate of new parents. Their new policies include over 16 perks for birth, adoptive, and foster parents.

  • Girls Who Code has made great efforts to improve gender diversity through creative outlets, such as their new hidden women in tech online lessons and code at home series to help young girls learn coding skills during the COVID lockdown.

Keep Reading

Diversity in tech: It’s Time To Prioritize Diversity Across Tech

Women in tech: Why we need more women in tech by 2030 - and how to do it

Slack’s diversity case study: How Slack Got Ahead in Diversity

Changing the culture of tech: For true diversity in tech, the status quo needs to go

Stories from other developers: Black and brown tech workers share their experiences of racism on the job

WRITTEN BYAmanda Fawcett

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