What is Pragmatically Bad about Tech’s Diversity Problem?

Jamelle Bouie has an excellent piece in the latest issue of The Magazine about the source of tech’s diversity problem.

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.[1] 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.


8 thoughts on “What is Pragmatically Bad about Tech’s Diversity Problem?

  1. Also, this quote from Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM in 1993, is pretty relevant for cynics looking for a pragmatic argument in favour of diversity “As far as I’m concerned, if you took a representative sample of the U.S. population and you put those 100 people in a room, half of them would be women and half of them would be men. And then inside the gender there’s roughly 25% ethnic minorities. I just want to get my share of the best people of that 100. When I looked around the room at my executive management team in 1993, we had too many white males among the population, which suggested to me that IBM wasn’t getting its share of the talent.”

  2. I don’t see a lot of evidence that, “challenging our conceptions of normality and guarding us from overgeneralizing from our own experiences” actually improves things. Nor that !(white males) would be able to provide that challenge in a way that makes sense for a technical problem.

    In short, I don’t subscribe to the underlying belief that diversity is a good thing, in and of itself. That !(white males) can bring something of value *just because* they aren’t white males.

    • You’re right. I haven’t said a lot. My thought was that, since false-consensus effect is a clear cognitive bias, measures to lessen the bias’s impact will produce positive outcomes.

      What would convince you? There are some nice anecdotes on Twitter about the benefit of women presence at tech conferences, but they’re worth however much anecdotes are worth.

      As is the case with all cognitive biases, it is not just limited to particular social groups. However, talking about white men is most salient here because our society, especially the tech community, is pretty white and pretty manly.

      • I think you’re making a couple of logic errors here, the first being that the composition of conference speakers is a direct result of (perhaps unconscious) bias. The second is that the bias of “false consensus” invariably produces negative results and, in this case, leads to said composition.

        I’m questioning all of this because I don’t believe the underlying assumption (and I think the fact it *is* an assumption is invisible to most people making this case). I also don’t believe that inequality of outcome is prima facie evidence of discrimination.

        As for what evidence would convince me, I’d say objective evidence that (in this case) that conferences would be better (and a strict definition of “better”) with “diverse” speakers. If a conference is mostly white males and it sells out and the attendees are happy, how would be it “better” for the conference to be more diverse? What *exactly* would improve? Things like that.

      • I think you’re making my position overly strong. For everything I said, it just needs to be likely (and not invariably) that speaker composition is the direct or indirect result of bias, and that false consensus produces negative results in the long run. Given how pervasive — and more importantly, difficult to consciously counteract — these biases are, I think the evidence is fairly good for the likely claim.

        I agree that assessing what counts as a better outcome is difficult. I don’t have an easy answer, but I think attendees’ own happiness won’t be enough. People are happier when their false assumptions remain unchallenged, but that’s not a good thing.

      • “For everything I said, it just needs to be likely (and not invariably) that speaker composition is the direct or indirect result of bias, and that false consensus produces negative results in the long run.”

        I strongly disagree; it has to be “very surely” the result of said bias since you are advocating what amounts to quotas and other ways to “enforce” equality of outcome.

        Are you seriously saying that a conference can be better even if (when) the attendees are more unhappy? If so, I sure don’t want you producing any conferences I go to! :-)

  3. Pingback: The Practical Benefits of Calls for Diversity | Raging Thunderbolt

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