This Labor Day, Reflect On Diversity And The Future

2014 is the year that work became a central point of discussion in Silicon Valley. For the engineers and knowledge workers in the region, issues of diversity and inclusion finally got their turn in the limelight, forcing us to question our deeply-held views about the meritocracy of Silicon Valley.

We also had to confront news that several of our most iconic technology companies conspired to hold down wages for employees. While that legal case continues to wind its way through motions and procedures, the message remains crystal clear about how executives see their engineering talent.

Our efforts have not just been internal though, but have also affected the way our entire economy runs. Airbnb, Uber, and other startups in the sharing economy have started to redefine work in the 21st century. That transformation has led to much controversy, such as when Uber unilaterally lowered prices on its UberX service or TaskRabbit completely revamped its work bidding system. But it has also ushered in an opportunity for startups to take the lead for workers rights in the coming years.

There has certainly been obnoxiously bad behavior displayed by members of our community over the past year, but also deep glimmers of hope for a kinder and gentler Silicon Valley. As we enter into the final stretch of this Labor Day weekend, it’s worth taking a break from grilling, driving, or, you know, Burning Man, and assess the status of work today in our innovation ecosystem. Where are we truly improving the quality of life for employees, and where are we harming our own efforts?

Some of the most important contributions that Silicon Valley has made to better the lives of employees are so common now that they are often taken for granted. Notwithstanding the simmering debate over the value of open workspaces, technology companies have encouraged all kinds of lifestyle improvements for employees, including both amenities and cultural improvements such as open communication, radical transparency, and flat management.

It should be no surprise then that Fortune’s list of top 100 employers included five technology companies in the top ten, and Glassdoor listed ten technology companies in the top 20 of its Best Places to Work list.

For engineers and other startup knowledge workers, we live in a time of plenty. Job offers can be found in a period of days in some cases, and salaries even for new college graduates are well above the national average. Unfortunately, not everyone has had the opportunity to take advantage of the surfeit of activity going on in technology these days.

Issues of diversity and inclusion have become common points of discussion about the future of the tech workforce. When it comes to female rates of participation in the Valley, there remains an incredible gap between our notion of a true meritocracy and what the reality is for female engineers and other employees of tech companies.

Our increased awareness has meant that more and more news stories have come out about the bad behavior of members of our community. The list is long, from startup CEOs and their fraternity-era emails, to venture capitalists who attempt to turn pitch sessions into romantic evenings. Yet despite such discussions, there remains a virulent group opposed to efforts to make our culture more inclusive, opposition that I honestly have never quite understood.

Thankfully, women are starting to get the infrastructure to support their technology careers that they should have had years ago. While shaming is a useful and important tactic, ultimately it is our ability to foster the next generation of female engineers and entrepreneurs that will change our culture for the better.

Boot camps like Hackbright Academy are offering female-only programming lessons that provide a pathway into the tech industry. Other boot camps like DevBootcamp are offering discounts for women and other underrepresented minorities in order to build a more representative workforce. These efforts complement programs by Google, Facebook, and other technology companies to actively promote inclusion through conferences and activities.

Cultural change is never easy nor fast, but we each have a responsibility to ensure that every member of both sexes has the opportunity to put their skills forward for the betterment of our society. If Silicon Valley is truly leading the world of innovation, we will certainly build even more awesome products when we take advantage of all the talents we potentially have at our disposal.

Coupled with the increased attention to women’s issues has been the heightened understanding of the lack of diversity that plagues Silicon Valley’s top technology companies. Thanks to forthright and transparent diversity reports published by a number of companies, we now have real data that underrepresented minorities are only a tiny sliver of our workforce — particularly in engineering departments — despite representing about a quarter of the population in the United States.

These workforce reports are vital for our understanding of diversity in employment, and frankly, they should be mandatory for any large employer. As product managers love to harp, data is the most crucial element for improving our products and services, and the first step in improving our diversity is simply to get a handle on what it looks like today.

But even though these diversity statistics are important, such numbers belie the individuals who are the key to improving our engagement across gender, ethnic, and cultural lines. Each of us can find ways to give back to the next generation, whether its advising a code bootcamp or mentoring students in after-school activities. Heck, 13-year olds are writing apps for smartphones these days — that mentee of yours may just be the next Facebook founder.

As a personal anecdote, these sorts of one-on-one sessions are what cemented my interest in technology at a young age. When I was in middle school, I wanted to learn more about programming, but like many U.S. schools, there wasn’t a class or a teacher who could teach me the subject. But my school reached out to the nearby high school, and they found a student who was willing to volunteer and tutor me starting with programming BASIC on TI graphing calculators. Everyone in our community has the power to make such a long-term impact on a student.

Having recently returned from Asia, the thought that keeps coming up in my mind is how people outside California see Silicon Valley as a beacon on the hill, the pinnacle of innovation and the champion of our world’s progress. The quotidian moments of a Bay Area engineer’s existence, from getting on a private shuttle with Wi-Fi, to extensive meals filled with organic foods, to massage rooms and sleep pods, are completely alien to most of the rest of the world, and are talked about almost to the point of reverence.

We have come far in improving the quality of our work and our lives. While we haven’t always been as inclusive as we should be, that doesn’t mean the future has to emulate the past. If ever there was a region that understood that, it’s Silicon Valley.

Image by penguincakes used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.