When diversity is not enough

Women cannot lean into a world that is hostile towards them.

Source: www.diversityinsteam.com

One month ago, the New York Times published an article revealing that senior Google executive Andy Rubin was paid a $90 million exit package by the company in 2014 after sexual misconduct allegations were made against him. The claim was quietly investigated, verified, and then hushed up. The woman was silenced and the harasser rewarded with a “hero’s farewell”.

Sexual harassment scandals are rife in the tech industry. In 2017, Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, left the company after details of the company’s rampant culture of misogyny and ineptitude at responding to sexual harassment came to light. Earlier this year, Emily Chang wrote on the prevalence of sex parties in Silicon Valley, and the gendered power dynamic that fuels them.

The ubiquity of this intense hostility towards women in tech is unsurprising: in Australia, only 16 per cent of the STEM qualified population are women. Google’s 2018 diversity report notes that women make up 31 per cent of their total workforce—but this includes non-STEM roles. In STEM roles, that number jumps down to 21 per cent. Meanwhile, white men make up 44 per cent of these roles. In other words, white men more than double the number of all women.

Tech companies acknowledge this gender disparity, creating pamphlets and programs to address the broken pipeline that leads to this underrepresentation. Microsoft creates guides to encourage women to participate in STEM. Google offers scholarships to women pursuing STEM fields, has a VP of diversity and inclusion, and has lobbied for national curriculum changes in Australia to be more inclusive. These companies offer ‘bias busting’ workshops to new employees in hopes of making their unconscious biases known. Diversity is essential, they say, because women are actually good and useful and prevent oversights from slipping into the final product. Having women in teams allows for their lived experiences to patch problems.

In the course of studying computer science, I’ve seen diversity wedged into many an industry cocktail night, discussion panel, empowerment workshop. I’ve read every platitude about the resilience of women and heard every inspirational call to smash the glass ceiling. Someone in my tutorial advised me to play the “girl card” during a job interview. I’ve been told time and time again that women are underrepresented in tech, that they don’t apply for as many jobs and don’t speak out enough, that they lack confidence and ambition. I’ve been told to lean in.

Well, I’m fucking exhausted. I don’t want to lean in. Like Ali Wong says, “I want to lie down.” Or more specifically, I want all the white men to lean out. Can they, please? In an industry so intensely hostile to women, that silences their experiences of harassment and pays their abuser 900 years worth of a six-figure salary, diversity is nothing but a condescending smokescreen. Diversity is a lifeboat that corporations cling to when public tide turns against them—and it is flimsy and hollow.

In fact, the rhetoric of diversity actively harms women. It puts the onus on women to not only survive in the toxic masculinity of the tech industry, but thrive—and if we fail, it is because we weren’t confident enough, or ambitious enough—we didn’t lean in enough. It’s our fault.

Since 2000, the final line in Google’s code of conduct has remained: “remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!” But someone did speak up, and they were punished for it. And even if I acquire the self-confidence and bravado of a straight white dude, this culture will not change, or become less hostile to women. Inevitably some brogrammers see confident women as a threat and become even more hostile to the perceived descent of PC warriors onto the golden age of testosterone-laden start-ups. As an example, last year, James Damore circulated a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” around the company, arguing that biologically, men are more suited to tech than women. And ultimately, having 50 per cent more female interns will not change how the company deals with sexual harassment.

Diversity is still important though, despite the oversimplification of its rhetoric. Increasingly, algorithms determine what we do, what we watch and what we buy, and increasingly, algorithms are trained on data sets that reflect the biases of their programmer. Apple’s Face ID has difficulty recognising Asian faces, and commercial A.I. algorithms categorises darker-skinned women with 65 per cent accuracy, compared to 99 per cent accuracy for white men. If these prejudices are not corrected, these biases will be perpetuated and entrenched, especially as A.I. algorithms are used to screen candidates for jobs and other character traits. Having more women work on these programs will likely create more reliable algorithms that will come to dominate our waking hours.

But this isn’t enough. Diversity should not be valued as a function of its utilitarian use. Tech companies have a diversity problem and it’s not one that leaning in will fix—the lack of diversity is perpetuated by a flagrant disregard for women.

I’m about to graduate. But the closer that long-awaited time comes, the more apprehensive I am of entering this world. I love programming—I think artificial intelligence is one of the most gruesomely interesting topics I have studied. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile praxis with principle when I think about participating in the tech world. It presents a facade of innovation, while dismissing women, while Amazon workers are exploited, while A.I. becomes less an interesting theory in vacuum and more applicable to drone bombings. Companies are becoming more powerful and the pace of technological progress too rapid to legislate on by technologically-illiterate parliamentarians. Change from the outside may not be possible for the tech world.

In reaction to the NYT article, Google employees staged walkouts around the world, including at the Sydney office. This internal dissent makes me a little bit hopeful and a little less worried about publishing this article. I wonder if, in this case, speaking out might be met with a positive response.