Amid the ongoing discriminatory accusations plaguing top tech companies such as Google and Uber, the industry wide implications of these cases cannot be ignored.
Once championed as the great social equaliser, technology now exhibits the same biases and discrimination implicit in wider society. Many fear that an industry meant to be pioneering and collaborative for the benefit of future generations has become a new capitalist tool, sustaining discrimination better left in the past.
James Damore, the man who started Google’s anti-diversity debate, sparked international outrage with his written manifesto asserting that inequality in representation within the industry was the natural result of biological inequality between the sexes. Threatened by Google’s affirmative action measures, he wrote the 10-page polemic to re-direct the conversation to the conservative white male ‘victim’. Falsely equating the company’s efforts toward equality with oppression toward him, Damore attempted to justify the plinth of historic white male domination upon which he stands.
These recent incidents are neither new nor isolated. A UC Hastings study found that 100 per cent of women interviewed reported gender bias. Of these respondents, ‘Black women are more likely (77 per cent) than other women (66 per cent) to report as having to prove themselves over and over again’.
Many women cited being pressured by colleagues into more ‘traditionally feminine roles’, including administration support for their male colleagues. A significant number of Latina and Black women also reported being regularly mistaken as janitors.
Several female UK tech experts and bloggers remain unimpressed and share their own stories of discrimination. Over the course of her career, Lyndsey Britton, co-founder of Tech for Life, found herself stereotyped as a tea lady or assistant, as well as being talked over and being asked to take notes in meetings.
Sunny Singh, author and founder of the Jhalak Prize for Writers of Colour, echoed Britton’s experience of being talked over as well as being mansplained, to having her ideas credited to male colleagues and experiencing overt instances of sexual harassment and denial of promotions. “These are not anomalies,” Singh says. “These are normal for women. When you add race or another intersection (such as ability or sexuality) it makes things worse.”
In an industry with such a global influence, discrimination can have grave and structurally exclusionary outcomes, not only for its workers, but for its consumers. While speaking to Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, co-founder of Stemettes, about the effects of this structural inequality within the tech industry, she highlights many instances where the lack of representation in the board room resulted in actively discriminatory technology.
In 2015, a Google Photos app identifying content in pictures tagged black people as ‘gorillas’ , and in recent months, videos have come to light of electric hand sanitizers that only recognize white hands . As technology evolves and widens its influence, Imafidon worries about where this exclusionary trajectory will lead.
Whether it’s driver-less cars not built for pregnant women, or health tech not taking issues specific to women into account, “could be life and death again,” she says.
Singh agrees: “The lack of diversity in tech has far reaching consequences, making the technologies being developed racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist at their very core. This obviously has far reaching consequences on society, on human rights and on democracy. This is not just about a bunch of dude bros who code. This is about how their narrow worldview and prejudices are being coded and sold to us across the world,” Singh declares.
Discrimination is no longer being written in stone, but in code. For an inclusive tech industry to emerge, the consensus is that the first simple step must be hiring, supporting and promoting diverse and intersectional candidates.
“Mentoring is a vital part of encouraging diversity. Having the visibility of someone who is similar to us and who can provide one to one support, guidance, introductions and opportunities can have a huge impact on confidence, aspiration levels and self-development,” Britton explains.
“Hire, promote, invest for discomfort,” Singh adds. “Discomfort – intellectual, emotional, social – is a sign that our thinking and world views are being challenged into growth. This kind of discomfort is imperative, not only for our businesses, but for us as humans.’
Imafidon agrees that change must occur in hearts and minds. “Stop bystanding is the biggest thing,” she says. “We need to be sure that everyone is aware and calling it out when we see [discrimination]. The glass ceiling is made out of bad managers and bad standards. We need to embed this in company culture by rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour.”
The industry needs to ensure diverse voices are equally validated, valued and centred, argues Minna Salami, Nigerian journalist, blogger and speaker. “Whenever someone calls my voice alternative, I tell them that I am actually at the centre of my own world and my views are not alternative to me,”.
To move forward, there must be a culture and commitment from everyone to understand unconscious bias to promote empathy and proactively work towards a more inclusive and representative tech industry.
About the author
Cherise studied Law at Durham University and Publishing at University College London. She currently works as a Journals Editor, and spends her spare time painting portraits, playing banjo, and reading for her intersectional feminist book club.