The tech industry and the products created by our largest companies aren’t easily avoided in your day-to-day life. The choices you encounter during your day-to-day life are largely created by algorithms that exist outside of you, like credit scores, and companies rolling out new inventions that re-shape daily life, like surveillance tools.
When an industry is creating things that shape people’s lives, it’s best when someone who looks like you is in the room. Otherwise, you’re left with things like TSA scanners that perpetuate transphobia. In other words, the lack of diversity can engrain forms of oppression into new technologies, making them increasingly dangerous.
The tech industry is aware that it has a problem. In 2017, Open MIC published a report on tech’s issue with race. After reviewing data from some of tech’s biggest players, the organization found that “Black people, Latinos, and Native Americans were underrepresented in tech by 16 to 18 percentage points compared with their presence in the US labor force overall,” executive director Michael Connor wrote.
The question of how to solve tech’s diversity problem has been around for years, and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. The powers-that-be in tech cannot be counted on to fix this problem themselves as the many efforts undertaken to make tech less white and less male have fallen short of goals, much less expectations.
“Beyond numbers, companies and their Boards of Directors also need to advance policies that have already proven successful, like developing and publicly disclosing time-bound goals for increasing racial diversity, and linking executive pay to the achievement of those goals,” Connor wrote.
According to Open MIC, Microsoft has tied executive bonuses to workforce diversity goals since 2016. LinkedIn does something similar, connecting several managers’ salaries and bonuses to the achievement of diversity goals.
Implementing these types of policies is one way to ensure companies are incentivized to spice up their rooms. However, that’s not enough by itself. Perhaps the key issue in these conversations is the focus on the word diversity itself, which has become watered-down.
Yes, there should be more Black people in the room at big tech companies like YouTube or Facebook. However, the introduction of a few Black faces doesn’t mean the companies overall structure would change. If bringing Black people into rooms is simply a way to satisfy numbers for a report or earn bonuses, then some of tech’s bigger issues will remain.
Facebook will likely continue hyper-policing Black users, including banning them from the platform for activism, and YouTube — which is owned by Google — probably won’t change algorithms that quietly guide users towards white supremacist theories and radicalization as their codebase is highly profitable.
“The real question,” Charles Isbell, dean of computing at Georgia Tech, told The Atlantic, “is: Are we interested in diversity, or are we interested in integration? Diversity is just membership. Integration is influence, power, and partnership.”