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Conversations on Diversity

14 Feb 2017

It’s funny that we talked about work life balance last week, since this morning I stayed up until three working on a feature (Booz Allen project) that will be demoed to a principle this afternoon. It also got me to thinking about burnout, the other topic of discussion last week, and how I avoid it (if you’re wondering about the title, we’ll get to diversity in a sec, just let me ramble for a moment). I think I avoid burnout by rebooting projects. With my role at the Kaneb Center, when I got back from BAH at the start of the school year, I rebuilt our primary project from scratch, implementing a lot of the cool things I learned this summer. For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to get the green light on a similar overhaul for the current BAH project, but I guess we’ve got too many demos to worry about that right now. At the root of this habit, I think there’s a little perfectionism at play; the longer I work on a single codebase, the more the bugs pile up, and the more best practices I learn and want to (but can’t) implement. Redoing a project revitalizes it, flushes the bugs, and lets me put any new learning to work. It’s a lot of fun.

On diversity

Maybe I should have appended the above to my previous post instead of writing it here. Oh well. Back the topic at hand.

First, let’s throw down some numbers on the gender gap in the tech industry. PBS News Hour provides a breakdown by gender and race of Google’s employees:

Diversity at Google

It would be irresponsible to assume off the bat that Google represents every other firm in the tech industry, but all of the sources that brought it up corroborated that other tech firms have pretty similar numbers, so we’ll roll with it.

Ok, so there’s a statistically demonstrable gap in the number of men and women in tech. For me, this raises two questions: why could this be? And what does it mean?

The why

This week’s readings gave reasons for the gender gap that I felt fell into one of two categories: historical and contemporary. The historical reasoning is virtually self evident: STEM occupations have historically been filled primarily (though certainly not entirely) by men because of the culture surrounding gender roles at the inception of these occupations. The current gap is a hold-over from those bygone days and fixing it is just a matter of giving it enough time. The “contemporary camp,” if you will, argues that more active and even insidious forces are at play.

I’ll call out Google and Facebook. They created this culture where people are expected to come from a certain school and have a certain background. They’ve sput out hundreds of companies that have taken this model and run with it. – Leslie Miley, IEEE Spectrum

By this narrative, Google and Facebook (and I guess no one else?) actively synthesized exclusion in tech hiring and inspired droves of copycats within the industry. I don’t doubt the role these companies, but I’m a little skeptical that the gender imbalance in computer science can be traced back to a pair of companies both less than 20 years old. According to Tekla Perry, author of the article which quoted Leslie Miley (see above), the hiring culture created by whichever tech giants is one of self-selection, where a candidate’s likeliness of being hired is a function of, among a few other factors, how similar they are to the other employees.

In my experience, fit with company culture is an important thing to determine during the recruiting process. Which reminds me of something interesting from class today: why were people so specific about Game of Thrones? I thought the whole “I felt excluded because I was the only one who didn’t watch it since it’s totally bro culture” was, I don’t know, disproportionate? It’s one of the most popular shows on TV and the most pirated show in history. I don’t mean to downplay any experience anyone had when they felt excluded, I just mean to say that with this oddly specific example, you’re reading too deep into it if you think it’s manifesting discrimination. Check out this article for more detail.

To a certain degree I think the issue at hand is closely tied to the idea of fitting in with a company’s culture, but transcends that when the company culture is necessarily discriminatory towards certain groups. A company where the majority of employees watch Game of Thrones is not discriminatory. A company culture that is catered strictly towards a single demographic group is. One of the most extreme examples of such a culture is that of the “Bro Coder.”

Bruh.

When this came up in class, I wondered if the Bro Coder, like the SJW, was something that only existed in its purest form on the internet. If it wasn’t 4am right now, I’d pull some numbers and try to answer that question. The point is that, assuming such cultures are in fact prevalent, they are discriminatory towards women, and would certainly be a driving factor behind the gender gap in computing.

Before moving on, I wanted to share a thought that doesn’t really fit anywhere else in this post. This may be a little optimistic, but part of me wants to say that the lack of diversity shown by current statistics represents the last several years of hiring (people may be staying with employers for less time than before, but it’s still on the order of years) and are not, therefore, a real-time reflection of hiring practices. In my experience, any woman I know has stood at least as good a chance as I had to get hired for a technical position. My sophomore year, my sister was hired months before me, and at the job I did get, my team was primarily women by a wide margin. I know my anecdotes don’t stand up to actual data, but I’m saying that they could be indicative of positive trends.

The so what

@Andie Rauta (if you ever see this).

So there’s a gender gap in STEM and it’s likely getting better (though, possibly not, or at least not at the speed many would like). Why is it bad, and what should be done about it?

I think freedom is at the core of the issue (the issue of why a gender gap is bad). It’s a logical conclusion that such an extreme imbalance in gender representation must indicate the active exclusion of women, something which infringes on their freedom to choose a career path. There are a lot of voices out there telling a lot of different women a lot about what they should or shouldn’t do. A lot of them say “go into STEM!” and a lot of them say just the opposite. I can’t judge which voices are louder since that’s something unique to every individual. The important part, in my book, is that the loudest voice be the one shouting YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU DARN WELL PLEASE; THIS IS AMERICA!. I think that’s what we should strive for. Instead of targeting girls with special STEM programs, target all children with them (a scientifically literate public is, I believe, a very strong asset to our country, perhaps even more so than the tech industry achieving a perfect gender balance). I wish I could remember what she said so I could quote her, but earlier today classmate Sarah Drumm commented that girls don’t need special treatment, they need equal treatment.

Sources


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