09 May 2016

The Reductive Effect of Homogeneity

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with a friend at a diner in the West Village. He recently finished his Masters from the same graduate program as me in New York City. Since we are both looking for a job, we immediately began talking about the headache involved in the process.

In our profession of technology for international development (ICT4D), we are at a convergence of two fields – one that is increasingly driven by local, diverse solutions (international development) and one that, at least in North America and Europe, has generally become more white and more male (technology). In the United States, women make up a smaller percentage of coders now than they did in the 1980s.

The subject of race and sex/gender in the tech workforce is a testy subject. With every article I write on diversity in tech, I get a backlash of the usual tired comments:

“Stop complaining, work harder.”
“Don’t make excuses for not being qualified.”
“Who the f**k cares if there are no women in tech?”

The arguments in return should be obvious – it’s not a mere coincidence the industry is dominated by white men. Not including, designing or accounting for more than half the population (i.e. women) in any industry is a horrible strategic business decision.

The cause of such visceral reactions to my articles comes down to less refined reason – white men think I am writing them off. As my friend at the diner – a white male – said during our conversation, it really sucks to be reduced to one’s race and sex instead of one’s accomplishments. That, I know. I am an Indian-American woman, and so the reductive nature of everything I have achieved is an everyday reality. Undoubtedly, my black athlete, Indian software developer, and East Asian friends in finance understand being reduced to common racial tropes. They’re harmful and frustrating.

Here’s the ironic thing about homogeneous tech workforces – I can’t help but see them as a trope. The masterfully satirical Tumblr blog, All Male Panel, captures the sentiment of this idea perfectly. In a world in which there are brilliant and qualified people of all sexes, genders, races, ages, religions, ethnicities and nationalities, how do so many companies and organizations continue to have such homogenous groups of employees, founders and executives? Any bystander could conclude it must be the product of a rigged system.

In that rigged system, the individuals and their accomplishments are diminished. There’s even an Etsy store for the cliché, saying, “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.” When I, and I’m guessing so many others, see a workplace overwhelmingly made up of white men, I can’t help but think the individual employees got to where they are because of their race and sex. It’s a similar effect to always attributing a black or Latino person’s admission into an Ivy League school to affirmative action.

A product of being privileged to live in New York City and work around the world is exposure to talent of all walks of life. Unfairly reducing a person and their accomplishments is damaging. I don’t want to look at anyone – white males included – and think about only their race and sex. One of my favorite teachers, the person who first encouraged me to write, was a white guy. Had I discounted any of my life mentors and advocates based on race or sex, I would have done myself a lot of harm.

Alas, the ratio of white males to everyone else in the tech industry is impossible to ignore. If those of us outside the favored majority know the system is rigged, we know those in the system may not actually be competitive compared to the entire population. We can’t help but see mediocrity of the favored win over exceptional of the unfavored. We associate homogeneity with mediocrity and, therefore, mediocrity with the homogeneous. That is the reductive effect of homogeneity.

White men, if you don’t want to be reduced to your race and sex, fight for diversity.