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Nithin Coca headshot

To Diversify Tech -- Force Inclusion?


We've let the cat out of the bag. After years of pressure from activists, including Jesse Jackson, companies including Google, Twitter and Apple have released demographic reports on their employees. And it's not good.

This, of course, is not really news to anyone who has lived in the center of the tech boom, the San Francisco Bay Area, where rapid population growth – chiefly driven by technology companies growing staff – has rapidly remade the region. Bars that used to be full of diverse artists and activists like myself a few years ago are now full of mostly male tech workers, nearly all of whom recently moved to the area. It is rare to go to a meet-up or tech seminar not full of white men – the same white men that dominate the staffing at technology companies across the Bay Area.

But the question that no one could answer was – why? Technology was driven by youth, the same youth who powered Barack Obama to the presidency and, as data showed, were more integrated, pro-diversity and pro-gay marriage than any other generation. Our generation is also the one that is seeing women graduate from college at a far faster rate than men. This isn't to say that youth are post-race and post-gender, but it is surprising that an industry dominated by millennials would be one of the most white, male-dominated industries in America.

The best answer I've found comes from Kathryn Finney, an African-American female working to bring more women of color into technology.

"To really understand why tech is having a hard time with diversity, you need to understand libertarianism.

"The idea of forced inclusion is one that goes against the very libertarian foundations of tech. The freedom to run your life/company as you wish without outside interference is a sacred right in this community. There are venture capitalists, who pride themselves on being free-range and not monitoring their investments."

If you really think about it, this makes perfect sense. Look at Uber, for example, or any of the “disruptive” sharing technology apps and sites. Their model is, quite frankly, to destroy an industry and ask questions later. This is exactly the libertarian philosophy: allow the market to speak and ignore or avoid government.

This type of thinking adversely affects minorities. Taxi drivers in many cities are most often immigrants of color, who often can find no other job with their limited skills. Their run-down taxis often support large extended families. This is not the typical raid-hailing app driver. The few times that I've taken Uber or Lyft, my drivers fit the demographics of Silicon Valley – all male, all white or Asian. In Portland, Oregon, the Uber “revolution” is leaving immigrant families lurching for money as their cars can no longer compete.

If more of Uber's staff had friends working in the taxi industry, do you think they would demonize it so much? Or would they better understand why taxi drivers across the world are getting so angry?

Finney is right – the technology industry needs to find a way to be much more inclusive. That means Uber should first empower existing taxi drivers with their technology before disrupting their industry and destroying lives. It means Twitter needs to involve African-Americans as its evolves its tools (which happen to be heavily used among minorities). It means that all the technology companies need to shift from focusing on being the first out with a disruptive technology and focus instead on ensuring that this technology does not disrupt and ruin people's lives.

Having a more diverse workforce would assist in this as it would change the ethos of the tech industry. It is time that the staff at Google and Apple reflects the users of Google and Apple, because if their technology is really as empowering as they claim it is, then it should also be reflected in their own hiring practices.

This means hiring outside the bubble (outside the existing tech networks that dominate referrals), more programs to do outreach in low-income areas, and, most importantly, an industry-wide effort to help promote technological education in minority communities across the country. We need to begin educating the next generation so that, in the future, the next Google, Apple or Uber is founded by someone who represents the rest of America. Then let's build some truly inclusive technology.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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