The lack of diversity in technology is a real and severe problem. The NCWIT article makes a compelling argument for the fact that the lack of gender diversity specifically is not a result of biological differences and that the discussion of it as such gives undue legitimacy to the argument. Any perceived difference is the ability of men and women or of people of different races is systematic and cultural – not a result of biology. Last week an article from the BBC described the slower pace of business in Rome compared to that of American cities and a classmate shared experience with this phenomenon. No one is discussing how Italians are biologically wired to work less than Americans, and if someone were to make this argument, he or she would be rightfully be dismissed as racist. The real obstacles to women and minorities in technology are those described in this week’s articles: a relative lack of resources and encouragement from a young age, differing societal pressures and expectations, toxic work and learning cultures, and people like James Damore at Google making excuses for it all.
The lack of diversity in technology is a problem. I can understand why someone might think it is okay for women or minorities to disproportionately pursue other careers if that is what they are passionate about, but today we are all stakeholders in the tech industry. Software is eating the world – and almost all of it is being developed by a bunch of white guys on the west coast. Everything from our means of transportation to our personal relationships is touched and shaped by services such as Uber and Facebook. If the teams behind these products do not reflect the diverse makeup of their users then the products will inevitably at best have blind spots for those users’ experiences and at worst perpetuate the toxic and exclusive cultures from which they come.
I don’t know what we can do to help fix this problem. One place for companies to start would be to continue pursuing programs that encourage diversity and to fire employees for harassment like Uber failed to do as described in Susan Fowler’s blog post. The structural and societal challenges are harder to address. I hope solutions to these will come, but if they are coming, they are a long way off. It’s going to take a lot more women and minorities in positions of power and a fundamental shift in culture the world over to fix these problems, and that is not going to happen overnight.
One thing we cannot do is give undue attention to the people who seek to perpetuate the white-male-dominated culture. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a tolerant culture cannot tolerate intolerance. I think Google made the right move by firing James Damore. To have done anything else would be to implicitly support his message. I don’t doubt that his heart might have been in the right place, but by appealing to gender stereotypes and justifying those stereotypes by appealing to biology, he had a part in reinforcing an unwelcoming culture that should have no place anywhere. If we are going to have open, honest discussions about diversity in technology, it needs to be rooted in a basic understanding that everyone deserves respect and owes respect to everyone else.