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The diversity shame in the industry

The recent views from a former Google employee have highlighted the work that still needs to be done around diversity with Billy MacInnes scratching his head over why the problem is still such a big one in IT

There has been much controversy over the memo from former Google engineer James Damore in which he suggested that “differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership”. He went on to claim that “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive and bad for business”.

There are probably some people who think he has a point. I would venture to suggest that nearly all of them are men. White men. But take a look at that second statement. Wouldn’t it have made more sense if he had removed the words “to reach equal representation” and just written “discrimination is unfair, divisive and bad for business”.

If we think discrimination is unfair, how do we go about stopping it? If a group of people have been discriminated against, how do you un-discriminate them and make everything fair?

Well, you could argue that there’s no real discrimination, it’s just biology. That our brains are different and we work in different ways or that we’re just different so there’s no reason to try and change things. In other words, the type of argument people deployed to try and counter efforts to abolish slavery. The type of argument they used to try and prevent women getting the vote, to stop women studying to become lawyers or doctors or architects or politicians. You get the picture.

There may well be an argument to be made for certain types of jobs that rely on brute strength, but I really don’t think techie jobs fit into that equation. Wrestling with a software issue or writing code doesn’t really require much muscular effort. Which is just as well because if we’re dealing in stereotypes, biological or otherwise, we would have to agree that the view of most techies as unfit, pasty males that subsist on a diet of junk food, wear nerdy t-shirts and work unsociable hours would render them incapable of doing much heavy lifting.

Still, women, eh? Maybe what makes them unqualified to work in IT is it that they have too much dress sense to wear dodgy t-shirts? Or that they can’t eat pizza in prodigious enough quantities? Or that they like to take a walk outside in the daylight sometimes?

Damore argues men have a higher drive for status compared to women and that “as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them”. Women, you see, don’t want high status, they want work-life balance. And the two are, quite clearly, incompatible. Why that should be the case is not entirely clear. Could it be, for example, that the current environment is engineered to favour and reward the gender which has done so well out of it for so long? Just a thought.

“Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role,” Damore adds. Whose fault is that? Maybe there’s a reason for that and maybe that reason is men don’t want to change the male gender role because that’s the one with more money and higher status. Usually, the defenders of the status quo are seeking to protect it because they’re the ones that benefit most from things staying the way they are.

He goes on to argue: “Philosophically, I don't think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women”. But couldn't the fact it is currently more appealing to men be a form of social engineering in itself? In the early 1980s, women took 37% of computer science bachelor degrees. By 2013, that figure had plummeted to 18%. In the US, the percentage of female computing professionals has dropped from 35% in 1990 to 24% today.

There is an argument that the arrival of home computers had a big influence on that decline because they were marketed almost exclusively at boys, instead of both sexes. Boys spent a lot of time playing with computers, girls did not. Stereotypes for tech were created. Over the years, they have been reinforced. And very little has been done to correct or change them. Perhaps because when people try to change them, they find themselves under attack for “arbitrary social engineering”?

I can’t help feeling it’s a shame that some men who work in an industry which prides itself on innovation, being on the leading edge, changing the way we work and live, should find themselves nodding their heads in agreement to very similar sentiments to those used to oppose the right of women to vote or slaves to be emancipated all those years ago.

This was last published in August 2017

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