Nicole Sanchez, Special for USA TODAY February 12, 2015
OAKLAND, Calif. — this is a critical moment for the tech industry. As the conversation about tech’s lack of diversity reaches mainstream consciousness, we have to make significant adjustments to move forward effectively.
History has taught us that diversification efforts (i.e.: initiatives to correct systemic inequalities) unfold like this: White men “let” white women into the halls of power they created, and little changes for the rest of us. Such is the case in politics, in elite universities and in corporate America.
This pattern is currently repeating itself in tech, with Silicon Valley luminaries and media applauding “change” and pointing to a handful of highly successful white, well-networked women as the vanguards.
As such, all women working in this field are expected to rejoice over Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer and take advice from them on how to replicate their success.
But something that everyone paying attention to diversity in tech needs to understand is this: White women speaking for us as representatives of the “diversity in tech” movement must stop.
White women are a small sliver of the available talent, but are currently used as the proxy for all diversity. What works for them is not what works for us.
Strategies for “women in tech” are insufficient for many women in tech
With the announcement of the Lean In Mentorship Network, solutions that work for a scant few women in tech will be the new expected norm for all women. Because this model is primarily about conforming to prevailing systems and fails to take into account institutional biases specific to women of color, there is no critical analysis of the structures that need to be dismantled for women to thrive. And because the prevailing systems are mostly controlled by a narrow slice of white men, which women will be most successful in this model?
Women of color already know that trying to conform to the mainstream is damn near impossible. And even if there are times that we can fake it (note: we shouldn’t have to), the emotional toll is enormous. If assimilation is the expectation, those of us who are non-white, older than 40, disabled, trans, not neurotypical, queer, from low-income backgrounds, and/or a host of other identities will continue to be locked out of tech.
This is not to discount the fact that cis (people who identify with their gender assigned at birth) straight white women face bias and discrimination in tech. But they are also the most palatable and least threatening to the mainstream as the face of tech diversity.
And, like the first wave of feminism and affirmative action, they are often speaking for communities outside their own identities and experiences. The majority of people working inside tech companies on diversity and inclusion are white women, and all of us have experienced on more than one occasion the term “increased diversity” used synonymously with “more white women.”
Understand why diversity is critical in tech
If you believe diversity to be a luxury, or something ancillary to your company/ organization’s mission, you will miss the larger point. Diversity is critical to ensure technological innovations that solve real problems. The sector has already lost enormous amounts of talent by ignoring entire sectors of the population as potential innovators. The demographic shift in this country will render many tech companies irrelevant as they are unable to meet the needs of users.
Be precise with language
Know that “women in tech” is an insufficient phrase unless you are willing to expand that definition widely. Consistently ask Which women and why?
When building groups or events for “women in tech,” be honest about the limitations of your network. If a “women in tech” event is going to be comprised of white women, be clear. And if calling an event “white women in tech” makes you uncomfortable, there is more work to do.
Please stop using the phrase “women and people of color” to describe diversity efforts. Its use speaks volumes about the prevailing mindset around diversity. When women of color hear it, we know what we’re dealing with, as @aurabogado (Colorlines, The Nation) so aptly put it. It means that you do not recognize that some of us are both of these things, and will never separate them.
Build inclusivity and de-center
If you work on “women in tech” events, organizations, etc. and you do not know why a more diverse cross-section of women participate, find out why. It is likely that your organization/company’s reputation has been tarnished by bad experiences for participants. People outside tech’s mainstream talk to each other. We know which conferences and events are going to be inclusive and which are going to be painful.
In addition, being an ally to people of color sometimes means stepping aside. If you are white and working on diversity and inclusion efforts, de-center yourself and your community. This means that you must be deliberate about making room for voices unlike your own.
If you are invited to be on a panel, for example, suggest a person of color instead. Refuse to participate in public conversations that are only featuring white people. Give up the mic wherever possible. The Black Lives Matter movement has given us so much good language about de-centering as a necessary part of creating change. It is not a coincidence that this is largely led by queer, Black women.
Diversity of thought
Do not fall into the “diversity of thought” trap. Having seen this at many companies, I am ready to declare it the ultimate cop-out on diversity efforts. Yes, diversity of thought exists. It exists any time two or more people are in a room together, but this is not sufficient to call out the real issue. Diversity of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, geography, physical abilities, will yield the widest range of “diversity of thought” possible.
There is no single solution
Recognize that effective programs for under-represented groups to participate in tech vary widely. What works for cis, white women is not likely to be effective beyond that narrow band.
Understand the difference between efforts that aim to diversify the window dressing of a company vs. those that are truly upending the culture of tech itself. The former is a short-term band aid that does nothing to change the exclusive cultural practices of tech. The latter will actually bring about massive social change.
Question the hell out of Leaning In. Whenever that phrase is used, ask “What do you mean? Who will that work for? What do you want to see happen?” If Leaning In becomes roughly half of the population’s only strategy to access tech, diversity efforts are destined for failure.
Until we are honest about who we are serving in the tech diversity movement and why, we will not have the impact necessary to achieve change on a large scale.
This means having uncomfortable conversations that can be difficult for some people. But if we want these efforts to succeed and sustain for generations to come, we must do this work. We refuse to accept the current paradigms that reflect rather than challenge the status quo and as women of color, we will no longer accept being spoken for.