Bias is Still an Unfortunate Reality in Many Tech Sectors

PastPresentFutureNeonSign.jpg

“Funny is funny. Good coder is good coder. These are true things. But it’s easy to forget that not everyone gets to get judged on these criteria, and only these criteria, without having to claw through a thick veil of biases first.”

By Antonio Rowry (COO, BLUE1647)

Take a population sample of any major city in the world and you’re likely to discover an incredible level of diversity. Aside from race, there is also gender, and many other factors to consider too, of course. However, people have much more in common than you might think in terms of their physicality. For instance, did you know that (according to DNA studies) all human beings are 99.99 percent genetically identical? That’s right, even though we appear to be quite different from an outward perspective, we’re actually much more alike than we might realize. Despite these scientific similarities, the world is still full of prejudice as well as various biases that are again, divided along ethnic, racial, and gender lines. Unfortunately, this sentiment often echoes throughout various fields.

As we move to an era where all things “tech” becomes increasingly central to our culture, and world economies, smart founders and investors will eventually come to realize that gender and racial diversity in the industry is actually important for success. In fact, as more and more skilled individuals begin exhibiting their talents, they’ll have no choice but to pay attention (or they might find themselves left behind). Simply put , the more diverse the problem solvers are, the easier it is to tackle unconventional, complex problems. Unfortunately, instances of unconscious bias seem to happen all the time in areas like tech and entrepreneurship, and that’s very disconcerting. Pinterest engineer, Tracy Chou sums things up nicely in a piece featured on Medium called “Why I Care About Diversity in Tech”:

“The quality, relevance, and impact of the products and services output by the technology sector can only be improved by having the people who are building them be demographically representative of the people who are using them.”

For all intents and purposes, she’s dead-on there; You simply cannot expect any population to truly “meld” with a product or service unless it is intimately familiar with how it works. Moreover, the more connected any particular group is to something, the more likely they are to try to improve upon it in a manner that truly speaks to their experience.

Often the social cues tied to unconscious bias are impossible to navigate or avoid.

For instance, when venture investors speak about “signals” that point to their comfort level in an investment (traction, strong team, large markets, etc.) they often don’t speak about such things as unconscious bias. Investors, like all people, react well to things they recognize (aka “Pattern recognition”). We see examples of this occurring from all over the world. Just look at Vista Equity Partners Chief ExecutiveRobert F. Smith, “who has delivered investors a staggering 31 percent average annual rate of return since co-founding Vista in 2000,” yet still struggles to land many investors due to lingering unconscious biases.

The tech/venture community is slowly recognizing the awful gender bias, and creating systems to counteract it while boosting diversity.

Of course it’s not as if no one is doing anything to combat the phenomenon. There are groups within the tech (as well as venture capital) community that are working hard to create a basic infrastructure to counteract race/gender bias. But since there are many of these, some of them quite deep-seated in nature, it can be a bit of an uphill battle. The most insidious ones tend to exist between the lines of elitism and class, because they are harder to describe (or more taboo in nature).

Tools for Overcoming These Challenges

Accessible Coding Bootcamps and vocational training programs focused on tech competency are a particularly great piece of infrastructure to this end. While one can’t become a proficient mobile or web developer in a month, training programs that get an individual off the ground with a tangible prototype (and relevant transferable skills) helps to move the culture forward. At the end of the day, it’s about creating opportunities for everyone so that participation in new and emerging industries is easier.

Etsy boosted the number of female engineers in their company (a nearly 500 percent increase) by launching an “Etsy Hacker Grantsprogram to provide need-based scholarships to talented women. They simply enrolled them in Hacker School(a three-month hands-on course designed to teach people how to become better engineers) to accomplish this.

We’re relentlessly focused on doing our part to make the tech and entrepreneurship community more inclusive to all forms of diversity. Our membership package at BLUE1647 (which focuses on student enrollment of youth, adults and veterans), speaks volumes about our overall gender, racial, sexual orientation, and age diversity outlook.

As a minority, and being an integral part of a minority run and operated space, BLUE1647, I’ve experienced both sides of the spectrum (experiencing bias and being in a position to impact others’). Everyday I strive to be more conscious. Many organizations across the globe say they’re for diversity, but do you care to take a guess at the group’s actual demographics?

Furthermore, what about their executive leadership or board of directors? Even if areas claim diversity, people who are under-represented recognize authenticity (or lack there of), where other groups simply don’t see, due to a lack of common lived experiences. It speaks to our participants in a very intimate way to know that we’re taking care of their considerations through familiar means. It’s an entirely different experience to feel like you’re finally taken care of, in a way that you’ve never realized you even needed to be taking care of. We consume and participate on media platforms more than any demographic, yet the advertisers; networks and producers don’t take care of us.

Our goal is to boldly build an environment that connects people based on mindset rather than external (or other) identifiers.

Besides just focusing on ROI (return on investment), we’ve coupled our efforts with general social impacts, and we’ve been able to create a really inclusive environment that we’re hopeful will continue to influence lives and create opportunities across the entire tech spectrum. By providing my perspective for those to consider that they might not otherwise have had, I’ll share a quote from Scott Reynolds that really sums up my thoughts:

“Funny is funny. Good coder is good coder. These are true things. But it’s easy to forget that not everyone gets to get judged on these criteria, and only these criteria, without having to claw through a thick veil of biases first.”

What other tools have you found that help improve the diversity in tech?


About the guest blogger: Antonio Rowry is the COO of BLUE1647, cofounder of the award-winning program 21st Century Youth Project, and Code Chicago. Antonio graduated from DePaul University with a degree in Business Administration and Management, where he focused his studies on new venture enterprise and organizational frameworks. With a passion for building organizations that make the world a better place, Antonio's mission is to enhance the diversity of thought in tech and entrepreneurship.