He points out that the lack of diversity in tech, broadly construed, has less to do with people’s explicit attitudes, and more to do with their implicit attitudes. The problem is perpetuated by little things we don’t pay much attention to, like network effects. As anyone familiar with the research on privilege is keenly aware, it is hard to acknowledge privilege — let alone to fight against it — because it is largely invisible, even to our conscious minds. (A good companion piece is Tom Morris on geeks and privilege.)
Tech’s diversity problem is still here. Most recently, Matt Andrews pointed out the existence of an all-male (and mostly white) tech conference. Shockingly, one of the organizers responded to his inquiry with: “I don’t feel need to defend this, but am happy with our process”. A firestorm ensued, and you can catch some sparks by clicking on the links that Andrews added to his post, at the bottom. (Don’t miss the contributions in the comment thread.)
I am less interested in stoking this fire than in tackling a common attitude that I see in the discussion. Basically, the attitude is something like: let’s grant that the lack of diversity in tech is morally bad; what is so pragmatically bad about it? In other words, from the perspective of a conference organizer who is neither interested nor disinterested in issues of social justice, why shouldn’t there be an all-male (and mostly white) panel speaker list?
I want to suggest that we can begin to see one way in which tech’s diversity problem is pragmatically bad through the recognition of the false-consensus effect. (Since the effect is well-documented, the Wikipedia entry, which is based on an academic review, is actually quite good.) This effect, roughly described by Wikipedia, refers to
a cognitive bias whereby a person tends to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her. There is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are ‘normal’ and that others also think the same way that they do. This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a ‘false consensus’.
Here is the causal pattern that I see, without the fine prints. First, implicit biases drive the lack of diversity. Then, the the lack of diversity drives the false-consensus effect. In the end, the tech world loses out on perspectives that would have added significantly to the conversation — perhaps by challenging our conceptions of normality and guarding us from overgeneralizing from our own experiences. If something like this is going on, then you should still care about the practical losses for tech even if you don’t care about the social injustices (but of course you should care about that too).
The matter, as always, is more complicated. In this context, a further complications comes from the fact that implicit bias and false-consensus effect can interact in dangerous ways. In a recent article in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found a direct relation between holding an implicit prejudice and perceiving a consensus about the acceptability of the prejudice. They then noted some consequences of this interaction:
[…] the illusion of strong support among prejudiced people can be expected not only to make them more willing to act on their views, but also more forthright in expressing their opinions, less prepared to compromise, and less likely to modify their attitude. Furthermore, consistent with spiral of silence theory, we can expect that people with nonprejudiced attitudes will be less likely to express their attitudes if they perceive themselves to be in the minority, leading their attitudes to be underrepresented in the environment […]
Together, implicit bias and false-consensus effect generate another form of pragmatic badness from the vocalness of the minority who fail to recognize the moral badness in tech’s lack of diversity. Taking this into account, it is all the more important for us to speak out and fight against the problem. Even from a selfish perspective, there can be a more fun tech world if there exist a wider range of voices.
Update: At this point, a common follow-up is: well, what about merit? People’s judgments of merit turn out to be significantly gendered and racialized too. Amongst the earlier studies that convincingly demonstrated this is Steinpreis et al. (1999), which found that people rate a male CV more highly than an otherwise identical female CV. Most recently, Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) got a lot of press. But really, the effect is studied extensively and proven to be quite robust.
Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.