On Diversity

The question of diversity in the technology industry is one I have few answers for. Lots of evidence to examine, but few answers. I do know it’s worth examining, though, and that not having the answers isn’t an excuse to stop asking the questions.

I started in technology in the videogame industry in 1995. As much as the Internet startup scene can be very white male dominated, frankly, the game industry in sixteen years ago made a TechCrunch50 look like the United Nations by comparison. Few people of color, and so few women that I used to store my purse and bag in the women’s room at the early Game Developers Conferences; hardly anyone ever went in there and among the handful of women there, we all knew each other. The games industry has changed a lot, for the better, in many ways. Is it fair to tie the increasing diversity (though still narrow) in the ranks of the makers of the products to the industry finding a mass market? Certainly, it might have reached the breadth it has with the same developer & publisher demographics. It’s hard to say, but it’s a question worth asking.

“Who else?” is another question worth asking. A few years ago, the Web 2.0 Summit, a conference I worked on, was the subject of an act.ly petition to recruit more female speakers, which I thought was a fair criticism. Kudos to my successor on the Web 2.0 events, Sarah Milstein, who has continued to spotlight the issues with her post about female speakers at the Web 2.0 Expo earlier this year. Summits are particularly hard events to balance out, since they target CEOs, a position which is even more likely to be white and male than the rest of the technology industry. But in general I do believe that asking the question “who would be a good keynote speaker?” tends to generate a list largely composed of white men simply because we’re used to seeing them on stage, and our brains get a little stuck in the channels that have been laid down in there. Asking specifically to brainstorm interesting, accomplished women, or people of color, usually results in an equally compelling list of names, but names that just didn’t come up before. More on that here. There are a whole lot of other reasons conferences can remain disproportionally white and male, but f you don’t ask, you can’t honestly begin to work on the problem.

But why is it a problem? What’s the big deal about diversity anyway? It would be simple to say its part of our values, but that misses the real point about the intended outcomes of our program. Code for America is a start up, but not just another start up. We work for the one institution explicitly designed to serve us all. Products and companies find their markets, and arguably we have to do the same, since designing for every single citizen puts any one solution out of scope for our resources pretty quickly. But neither do we get to just do what we like and hope there are others like us who like things the way we like them. Our users may be parents of public school kids, they may be neighborhood organizers, they may be veterans and their spouses, but because we are working for and with government, our real clients are taxpayers, and in this country, that’s a very diverse population to be accountable to.

There is an enormous body of work showing that diversity of thinking leads to better outcomes. If we take this research seriously, we should act on it, in support of better solutions, where “better” is defined as solutions that work for the wide range of people who live in America’s cities. In fact, defining the problem is a diversity question as well; whose problems are we tackling here? But the technology industry in the US still lacks diversity; in general, the demographics the companies in this sector aren’t representative of the diversity of our country. And yet that’s largely the population we’re recruiting from; that, and young people just entering the industry. So we at CfA have a unique challenge. (Actually, we have many, and sometimes so many it terrifies us!) We have a real mandate to recruit a diverse class of fellows, and a pool of applicants that stacks the deck.

What’s the answer? We’ve been focusing outreach for our fellow recruitment on historically black colleges and universities, we’ve been reaching out to groups like the Anita Borg Institute, WITI, etc, and generally hoping to make it clear that CfA encourages applications from women and minorities. But really, we don’t have the answers, and one of our best strategies is to just keep asking the question, and doing it publicly. Where should we reach out? Can you help us spread the word? What can we do to attract applicants from every race, class and gender? Please feel free to forward this post to anyone you think can help, and of course to leave your ideas in the comments.

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