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Diversity In Tech Needs Less Buzz And More Action

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I am smart. I am hardworking. I am a logical, ordered thinker. I am gay. I am brown. I am a woman.

I am looking for a job in the tech industry.

I say these things as a way to underpin something that must be addressed – diversity in the technology workforce need less buzz and more action.

Diversity in tech is a hot issue today, as it should be. If economically developed countries really are headed for the Internet of Things, everything – from a clock to a toothbrush to a microwave to a belt – will need some kind of code, programming, information architecture, and hardware to function. Our increasingly diverse society means an increasingly diverse technology workforce is needed to help power the world of tomorrow. And so, the buzz of diversity in tech tells me that I am welcome.

My experience tells me otherwise.

I went to an undergrad that is known for producing engineers and computer science majors en masse. Some of the university departments were and still are ranked in the top 25 American programs. Going to that university meant I had the opportunity to get a degree to land me a career in tech.

But I didn’t take it.

The reasons why are simple: the second set of three statements – I am a brown, gay woman. Like many if not most engineering environments, the one at my undergrad was unduly tough for non-white, female (cis or trans), queer people. Though my math grades and test scores put me at or above the average engineering student, to survive in that environment as a triple minority, I knew that average was not enough. No one encouraged otherwise.

Ironically, I found myself in the similar environment of the business school, as I was lucky enough to have parents who were willing and able to pay for my undergrad degree, but only on the condition I stayed in business, science or engineering. In my time there, I heard countless racial, sexual or other hate-driven statements from students and professors alike. Some examples I bore witness to include:

“We are at a disadvantage in our project group because we got the most women.”

“He’s a fucking chink.”

“We are merit based and if there are no black people who are good enough, so be it.”

“He is disgusting, and by that I mean he is gay.”

From the several minority friends I had in the engineering school, I knew many of their environments were similar.

The problem is a system that continually shuts out – either intentionally or by default – underrepresented groups of people at every stage of the training process.

 

I was aware I was gay from a young age and I grew up in a very conservative part of the country. Though I was tired of racist, homophobic, sexist and anti-non-Christian sentiments, I had to make do with what I had in that university. After attempting to join and integrate myself in STEM organizations of the school, I realized that socially, by virtue of who I was, my place was not there.

By my sophomore year, I did what I needed to maintain a decent GPA and used whatever free time I had to explore subjects and ideas that drew a more tolerant and open-minded set of people. In the near decade since I finished undergrad, I was fortunate to establish two careers from these subjects – international development and writing. In my career in international development, I focused on the role of technology.

To get where I want to go in life, I knew that I eventually would need to make a transition to the private sector tech industry and have been trying to do so for the past two years. Despite everything I have accomplished in my other careers, working in a field tangential to private sector technology, countless hours of networking, and the buzz about diversity in technology workforces, I have come up with no concrete results.

I can’t undo my decision in undergrad to distance myself as much as possible from the toxic environments that dictated the technical majors. In hindsight, I don’t think I would have made a different decision. What’s unfortunate is that that decision precluded me from learning hard technical skill sets. Everything I have learned about technology has been self-taught.

In my case, as I’m sure is the case for most technologists, self-teaching can only go so far. My appeals to the private sector technology world to invest in me in exchange for my guarantee to work hard for them have gone unanswered. I am continually told that I simply do not possess the “right fit” of skills for tech companies. 

This is a major challenge to diversity hires at tech companies. It is not a lack of individual willpower to learn the tough skills or to embrace risk and foresight that prevents a disproportionate number of minorities from gaining tech jobs. Increasingly, it’s not even a tech company’s failure to search for minority candidates that prevents diversity hires. The problem is a system that continually shuts out – either intentionally or by default – underrepresented groups of people at every stage of the training process.

In order to avoid being called “aggressive” or “bitter,” I have had to smile and nod through death threats, overt aggressions, micro-aggressions, and countless ignorant comments.

 

Companies are not willing to invest in or work with diversity candidates as part their hiring. Formal, and now informal, education systems such as coding bootcamps, cost way too much for the average person to learn new skills if and when they want to make a change later in life.

I have skills and experiences that can only come from being a marginalized part of society. I have had to fight so much harder than most of my counterparts for every story that I wanted to tell, every opportunity that I wanted to realize, every project I felt was worthy, and every connection I wanted to make. In order to avoid being called “aggressive” or “bitter,” I have had to smile and nod through death threats, overt aggressions, micro-aggressions, and countless ignorant comments.

My story is not unlike so many other brown and/or black and/or gay and/or women of this world, but my story – our stories – make us an asset, not a liability. The resilience, creativity and poise we possess by way of what we have been through are things that cannot be taught, yet we are shut out of an industry because we do not possess the skills that can be taught.

While the tech industry says they welcome a diverse set of candidates, these statements have so far been laden with an inherent superficiality. Yes, it may be the case that the racism, sexism and homophobia of yesterday is not welcome today, but that does not rewrite the environments that have dictated technical fields for years.

If the tech industry is serious about building a sustainable and resilient workforce beyond the white males of the world, there is a lot of investment and work that needs to be done.

 

That does not suddenly change the countless opportunities minorities have been pushed out of or elected to leave because of systemic discrimination. And in fact, case after case after case has shown that this discrimination is still pervasive for those strong minorities who did manage to make their way into the tech industry.

Not enough is being done to correct a lifetime of imbalances that brought the industry to its current state. If the tech industry is serious about embracing diversity, and if the tech industry is serious about building a sustainable and resilient workforce beyond the white males of the world, there is a lot of investment and work that needs to be done. Short of real action, the dynamic minorities of the world will simply exist as buzzwords of tomorrow.

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