“There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.” Denise Young Smith, the former VP of Diversity for Apple, said those words at the recent One Young World Summit, held in Bogotá, Colombia. The commentary in response to Smith’s statement has been revealing, in that it makes clear both the opportunities and challenges that exist in defining diversity in tech within Silicon Valley.
Often encumbered by socially and culturally polarizing factors like race, gender and sexual orientation, how diversity in tech is framed and enacted is unfortunately becoming an inept exercise in identity politics and political correctness. A reframing of the diversity in tech narrative is needed, shifting its primary focus from surface and optics-driven human resources activities to deeper, more business-integrative efforts that seek to infuse diversity and inclusion within the ways technology work is done.
In doing so, the bridge that connects diversity and inclusion to actual technology design and development practices and processes is built. Only through such strategies will the diversity in tech needle truly be moved.
Motivating a New Narrative for Diversity in Tech: The Business Imperative
Silicon Valley is at a critical junction. Not only is technology more deeply embedded in our lives and our daily activities, but it’s also being called upon in responding to some of society’s greatest problems. While technology holds much promise, engineers must grapple with both technical considerations and the often more consequential social, political and cultural implications of design and eventual deployment.
Unfortunately, as a function of the homogeneity in perspectives, values and assumptions of those privileged to engage in such grand exercises, a more monolithic view of user and use often prevails.
This narrow perspective not only cultivates exclusionary decision-making but fosters technological solutions that are, in essence, biased. They are devoid of responsiveness to the needs and considerations of diverse groups. While an unintended consequence, the implications can be profound.
Shaping the Discourse: Countering the Depoliticization of Engineering
In offering some understanding of why those involved in technology’s design and development are ill-equipped, and to support offering a more appropriate response in countering current harmful directions, the works of Erin A. Cech, specifically her paper “The Veiling of Queerness: Depoliticization and the Experiences of LGBT Engineers,” provides insights.
She states there’s “a level of resistance within the profession” to address the important issues of diversity in the tech world.
Yet as recently evidenced in discussions around the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in identifying characteristics like sexual orientation and criminality based on physical appearance, these questions couldn’t be more relevant. A recent article in The Atlantic reacted to the now-infamous “gaydar” study by Kosinski:
But it’s really the raft of tenuous, culturally constructed assumptions that go into building algorithmic facial analysis that are most worrying, critics say. “Social Psych has a serious native-English speaking, cis, straight, white-guy problem (like many fields), which definitely leads to these sorts of studies,” … I can’t imagine [Kosinski’s] study would have gotten as far as it did if there were more diverse people in positions of influence at some point in the pipeline (colleagues, ethics committees, the editor, reviewers, etc.).”
Moving the Narrative Forward: Recommendations and Challenges
I have been recently inspired by the equity-based design movement, specifically equityXdesign, as a conduit by which to infuse diversity and inclusion into the practices and processes of technology design and development.
The Equity Design Collaborative describes equityXdesign in this way: “We believe that designing for the most affected and marginalized, letting their voices and experiences lead, and acknowledging the barriers to engagement are critical for the new process … we believe it is this multiplicity of entry points that will create conditions for new invention and innovations of equity.”
Universally, I would offer that this reflects the true imperative. This is what should ground and govern the diversity in tech narrative.
The needed work is not easy and is not without its challenges and further questions. How will the impact of the reframing be measured? Will Saudi Arabia’s increased investments in the tech sector be further consequential to diversity and inclusion efforts?
Even in light of these challenges, the opportunities presented by this reframing are great. Imagine the narrative that the proposed reframing delivers: organic inclusive, equitable and just innovation through more inclusive and intentional practices and processes. Think about the sustainable change in norms, practices and even optics (in response to Denise Young Smith’s comments) in Silicon Valley that this re-framing could enable.
As such, movement of the true needle of diversity in tech can be accelerated and, ultimately, sustained.
Featured image by littlehenrabi via iStock