If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a typical Silicon Valley employee, what would you see? You’d probably picture someone like this:
Shown above is a tech bro: a white straight man in his 20s or 30s who dresses casually and works hard as a coder/engineer/entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Unlike the geeks of old, these tech bros aren’t sniveling poindexters who can barely squeak out a word. Tech bros are more confident, modern, stylish, and generally more bro-y. Their culture combines the ruthlessness of entrepreneurship with modern digital acumen and has produced some of the most popular digital products of today including Facebook, Twitter, Snap, and Uber.
The problem with tech bro culture is that it alienates anyone who doesn’t fit into the archetype. People of gender, racial, and sexual minorities just can’t seem to find themselves accepted by Silicon Valley on a large scale. But why does this happen? Why should we care? And what can be done about it?
And before you say “We should just hire based on skill, not on race/sex,” minorities in tech are not equally given the chance to be competitive.
Why Silicon Valley mostly white and male
It’s easy to think that Silicon Valley is a cultural institution built by white males, for white males, but that’s not entirely accurate. According to Emily Chang (author of “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley”) women played an instrumental role in the early American computing industry that would eventually become Silicon Valley. They served as vital programmers for NASA and the military, including on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
But by the time the late ’60s/the early ’70s rolled around, big companies started using aptitude and personality tests (themselves designed by straight white men) to find ideal programmers, making it significantly more difficult for women and minorities to be accepted in the industry and find work. Ever since, the technological powerhouse known as Silicon Valley has been dominated by what would become the tech bro.
Moving forward, Silicon Valley morphed into an institution that constantly worked to maintain its own demographics. This does not mean that it was always a conscious decision (i.e. straight up deciding not to hire someone because they’re black/female/gay) but one that plays off of generations of systemic biases against minorities.
For various reasons, minorities of all kinds are discouraged from going into STEM fields. Whether that be due to economic disenfranchisement or social biases (women being encouraged to study more “traditional” fields), there are fewer minorities joining STEM than there are white males. In terms of simple statistics, for every minority that graduates in a STEM field, there are dozens of white male graduates with similar qualifications, further narrowing the chance of getting hired.
A common counterargument to Silicon Valley’s homogeneity is, “What about Asians? There are so many Asians/Indians in tech!” While it’s true that there is a significant Asian/South Asian demographic in Silicon Valley, according to a study called The Illusion of Asian Success, Asian tech employees are the least likely demographic to obtain leadership roles. Despite outnumbering white men in certain areas, Asian employees have 3x fewer executive positions in Silicon Valley than white men. In Silicon Valley, power is consolidated in the tech bro demographic.
Why diversity in tech helps everyone
When online platforms are designed exclusively by white men, they are often unintentionally designed exclusively for white men. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams told Emily Chang that if there had been women present on the original design team, Twitter wouldn’t have such a problem with trolling and harassing women (as well as everyone else) that it does today. The original design team simply did not factor how the technology would affect people outside of their demographic because they had no outside perspective.
Similarly, Amazon is currently developing highly detailed facial recognition software to sell to the U.S. military. While the software can successfully identify the face of a white man with 99% accuracy, it only successfully identifies the face of dark-skinned women 70% of the time, something that could lead to false accusations or profiling. The reason the software is so much more adept at identifying white men is that it was designed by white men, and therefore, its application for white men is given considerably more weight in its design.
While these kinds of mistakes are usually unintentional and not malicious, they highlight a problem in how non-diverse dev teams create software for their own demographic. In today’s interconnected digital world, the best software should be designed to serve as diverse a crowd as possible. Silicon Valley has not only a moral obligation to diversify its workforce, but a functional obligation, too.
Population statistics indicate that by the year 2040 black people and Hispanic people will no longer be minorities in the U.S. If mass-produced digital technologies are still created solely by tech bros by then, then the design of their products will no longer reflect the needs or wants of the population. A diversity of demographics leads to a diversity of perspective, and a diversity of perspective leads to better products at the end of the day.
How Silicon Valley can be more inclusive
The key to achieving external diversity is to make sure your company is inclusive internally. What this essentially means is that simply hiring diverse workers won’t solve the inclusivity problem. If minority workers are brought into a workforce that is explicitly designed for tech bros, they may be ostracized and held back from their true potential.
Take Uber, for example. After making headlines for various HR scandals that stemmed from a non-inclusive and non-diverse workplace, the company focused hard on hiring minority employees. According to former Uber recruiter Pranam Lipinski, this led to even worse working conditions for minorities as they were thrust into a workplace that didn’t account for or appreciate their inclusion. Hiring diverse people doesn’t magically make a workplace inclusive, a company must be inclusive from the inside out.
So how can a company strive to be more inclusive internally? One solution is to make company policies that specifically address minority concerns but benefit all employees. For example, studies have shown that women and minorities are far more likely to be interrupted during company meetings than white men. Instituting a company-wide “No interruptions during meetings” rule would solve this. While this rule would help minority employees be able to speak freely, it doesn’t actually silence white male employees either. It gives everyone a chance to speak their mind.
The most successful inclusivity programs don’t single out minorities. Singling out minority employees applies pressure to them to act as a “model minority”, and can make them targets of contempt. Emily Chang spoke of tech conferences where every woman in the room was asked to stand up and name themselves, something that, while done with good intentions, ended up making them feel alienated. The best inclusivity programs address the concerns of minority employees without explicitly calling them out.
Every tech startup in Silicon Valley wants to change the world. They want to rock the boat, make their mark, and change the status quo. How can a company truly claim to be an innovator or a disruptor if they don’t disrupt the racial and gender stranglehold over Silicon Valley? You can’t change the world without using the perspective of the global community. Ultimately, the goal of inclusivity is not to have minorities succeed in spite of the majority, but alongside the majority.