Culture Wars, Politics, and Diversity in Silicon Valley

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IMG_6031 Culture Wars, Politics, and Diversity in Silicon Valley

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The {culture wars, politics, and diversity} soup.

I have come across an article in the New York Times titled “The Culture Wars Have Come to Silicon Valley.” The author – Nick Wingfield – in 24 words goes from talking about James Damore, the Google employee who was recently fired for a controversial anti-diversity manifesto, to left and right political views and how they related to the gender bias.

Here are the 24 words directly from the article:

Supporters of women in tech praised Google. But for the right, it became a potent symbol of the tech industry’s intolerance of ideological diversity

In a swift move, he puts “supporters of women in tech” on one side of the equation and “the right” on the other side, going from diversity to politics. Crafty, but misguided.

In fact, James Damore admits to being a liberal. From his manifesto:

In terms of political biases, I consider myself a classical liberal and strongly value individualism and reason.

Wingfield assumption that women-in-tech supporters are liberal is a fallacy that is not compatible with the facts used to introduce that idea. The Google manifesto reference seems to be more or less an excuse to tie a political controversy to the latest hot, current but unrelated silicon valley dispute.

Not every opinion must be liberal or conservative.

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The habit of mixing vaguely correlated topics, confusing them to make an unrelated point, is a practice that complicates important issues and deepens the division. If gender bias gets associated with politics, the argument is destined to get stuck in political dogmas.

In today’s social climate, if the left takes one stance, the right must take the opposite position and vice versa. The two sides are at war, sometimes because they don’t like each other and so they must disagree. Liberals claim a stance, conservatives claim the opposite position, and nobody moves from it. Once you tied politics to diversity in tech issues, to make progress with diversity, you’d have to change people’s political views. It is reinforcement by proxy, an evil pox that we do not need.

I do agree with the New York Times that there is a culture war in Silicon Valley, and the article mentions a few interesting anecdotes. I can also believe that the culture war has correlations with politics and in some cases direct connections. I do not believe that the issue related to the bias towards women-in-tech is part of it. It is a different matter – call it the “inclusion war” – that has three factions, separate from the old liberal and conservative division.

Faction #1: Women-in-tech allies.

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The first faction is the women-in-tech allies. For them, bias toward women prevents strong talent from joining the tech world. This group is concerned about the alarming trends of women running away from tech, and low rates of female Computer Science graduates. They believe that female-programmers can be as skilled as male programmers.

This group looks at the history of computing, dominated by women. Developers like  Ada Lovelace (1815–1852),  Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Grete Hermann (1901–1984),  Betty JenningsBetty SnyderFrances SpenceKay McNultyMarlyn Wescoff,  Ruth Lichterman,  Irma Wyman,  Grace Hopper and countless others, shaped the world of programming early-on.

The group also looks at more recent examples.  Marissa Mayer,  Ellen Spertus,  Jeri Ellsworth (self-taught computer chip designer),  Lucy Sanders (co-founded the National Center for Women & Information Technology),  Audrey Tang (leader of the Pugs project) and Joanna Rutkowska to name a famous few.

It is important to highlight that this group does not advocate for unqualified women to get programming jobs. Instead, they believe that qualification must be assessed with the same rigor used for men, without artificial privilege or unfair bias.

In other words, nobody advocates for women to get computing jobs just because they are a minority. They support creating an environment that makes it more likely for women to choose to study computer science, become programmers, join the industry and thrive in it.

This group also believes that the ideal work environment for a woman is different from a traditional all-men work environment. For example, an all-male group of programmers under 40 with a macho complex might not be the ideal working context for a woman. When I said that women should be evaluated with the same rigor, I used those words deliberately. I didn’t say “the same way,” I said, “with the same rigor.” If you have a woman being interviewed by a group of brogrammers with clear misogynist sentiments, how do you think that would go? Context can influence results dramatically.

On a side note, I do believe that this group can go too far to try to fix the problem. That is not a good thing, and it does not help. For example, if an organization tries to force a 50% balance between men and women, it creates more problems than it resolves. The aim must be at giving the best chance to everyone, creating a welcoming and friendly environment, free of bias, conscious or unconscious. Forcing the door to be open to unqualified engineers just to make the numeric balance is not a solution to the problem, it reinforces the problem and feeds people like James Damore with ammunitions to make damaging statements.

Faction #2: Anti-diversity.

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The second group is hostile to women in tech, and they know it. I am going to call it the anti-diversity group, and I want to believe that it is the smallest one. People in this cohort are convinced that women should not be taken seriously as developers. They are confident that for biological reasons women don’t have the proper mindset and disposition to code.

This is the narrative that James Damore was fired for. This group thinks that women must work harder than men to prove to be able to code. They argue that there should not be any attempt to create a job environment that is compatible with their needs and that having to be careful about gender bias is going too far. For this group, women that join tech should be able to operate at their best in a hostile and often misogynist environment.

You can read the rhetoric in the James Damore manifesto:

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. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

See how he claims that the goal is to reach equal representation? That is misguided. Diversity programs at Google are aimed to create favorable environments to allow skilled female engineers to thrive. Google does not claim that 50% representation of women in tech needs to be reached.

He continues by falling into the fallacy of gender bias and politics correlation.

At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases. Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases. Considering that the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media, and Google lean left, we should critically examine these prejudices.

Similar to the New Your Times article, James swiftly goes from diversity to politics, muddying the waters and forcing a side for people who have political ideologies but may not understand the gender issue.

He then attacks programs meant to help create an environment more compatible to minorities who are trying to enter into a hostile workforce. For example, he denounces

Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race.

But, aren’t programs, mentoring and classes supposed to help people who struggle with particular issues? If the problems are related to a particular gender or race, what’s wrong with creating those classes? Why not complaining about breastfeeding classes in hospitals because they discriminate against men? Or, beard-trimming classes for men because they discriminate against women? If Google has a misogynist culture or has unrepresented groups who may struggle to integrate, what’s wrong with creating programs to help?

Faction #3: Unconscious bias.

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The third group is composed of people who have an unconscious bias toward women in tech. In this group, people don’t know that they are discriminating, and they don’t want to discriminate. They do it unconsciously, applying a bias that is due to what they are used to see in the industry. They are used to see men coding, and anything that codes and doesn’t look like a man seems odd and foreign. This leads to question, unconsciously, if a woman as a software engineer can be as skilled as a man.

This group needs to be aware of unconscious bias, and how to recognize it when decisions are made. For example, when a manager is thinking about promoting engineers, is he or she going to pass on promoting a woman to a higher level because she doesn’t look like the stereotypical coder? Or is he evaluating her for her actual skill and potential?

Unconscious bias is subtle and needs to be brought to the light. It hates the light, and that’s a good thing. It means that education can be a significant ally for women in tech and thus the Google programs to put a big spotlight on to unconscious bias.

Don’t waste your time with anti-diversity advocates.

I do not believe that anti-diversity people can be educated to think differently, and I don’t believe it is worth the effort to try. It would be an uphill battle where logic meets assumptions and evidence is fabricated out of limited personal experiences. You know, the sad “I know this woman who wrote bad code” stories.

Anti-diversity people who cannot control their hostile sentiments should get over it or look for employment in a different industry. I don’t have a tolerance for it, especially if politics and diversity issues are brought together in a sickening soup.

Educate people with an unconscious gender bias.

The people that can be helped are the ones with an unconscious gender bias. Since they do not want to have a bias, and they don’t know they have one, they can be educated to recognize it and correct it. Education and awareness can turn things around for them. There are many resources to help identify and control unconscious gender bias, so I will not go into details in this post.

A Google search for “unconscious bias” returns more than 7M results. The level of interest in this topic has grown in the last few years, as demonstrated by this Google Trends graph that shows the popularity of “unconscious bias” as a search term:

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Compare this with a search with the term “anti diversity,” just for fun:

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See the blue vertical spike at the end? That’s James Damore’s debacle.

Please, keep politics away.

Liberals and conservatives can be found scattered all over the three factions. Political opinions and women-in-tech sentiments might have some degree of correlation, but there is no causation. Stereotypes and generalizations are a self-fulfilling prophecy that should be avoided and fought.

So, can we please try to keep gender bias and politics separate? Not everything is part of a liberal or conservative agenda.


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