To get an idea of how diversity in tech is a serious problem, watch an episode of the far-too-realistic HBO series Silicon Valley. After watching five minutes of dorky white guys awkwardly prancing around, you might conclude around that our tech industry sprung up in a mythical, testosterone-laden land located between Latvia and Lithuania. For being on the so-called “cutting edge,” Silicon Valley is, in some ways, still stuck in the 1950s.
Let’s face it, if you visit an office in Silicon Valley on any given day, you’ll probably think you stepped onto the set of the AMC series Mad Men, without the fancy hats and cigarettes of course. The tech industry is very much male dominated, and racially and ethnically lopsided too.
But I’m a white guy, so who cares?
Admittedly, there are many smart and influential people who think that it’s an issue that doesn’t merit attention. In reality, diversity is still a common sense goal even for those folks who aren’t moved by moral motives. Diversity in nature largely equates to strength and resilience, and the business world isn’t much different. Studies show companies whose employees reflect their diverse consumer base tend to be more profitable. Demographic homogeneity can leave your staff very out of touch from the real, diverse world.
The United States is quickly becoming one of the most diverse societies on the planet. If tech companies shutout females and non-white people, we’re breeding inequality by blocking people from a continuously massive source of wealth creation. Needless to say, inequality isn’t the building block of peaceful and secure societies.
Admitting we have a problem, sort of
Tech companies in general are quick to espouse a “pipeline problem,” whereby not enough Black and Hispanic kids are getting the right educational foundation for a career in tech. While hotly contested by many as an inaccurate cop out, the concept continues to drive much of the Valley’s push to help educate future workers to address diversity deficits that threaten to potentially define our economic future.
Today, a gender-balanced group in Oakland, California is now learning coding and other computer science skills at a Google-sponsored lab. This is just one initiative of many around the country that are helping today’s youth prepare for working in the thriving tech industry, that will produce millions of jobs in coming decades.
Google started a pilot program for Code Next at the beginning of the year, inviting about 70 ninth-graders into a lab not far from downtown Oakland. Students visited the lab twice a week from January through June to pursue projects ranging from coding and game development to 3D modeling. The company says 86 percent of the current class is black or Latino, and roughly evenly split among boys and girls.
King says says the curriculum “open-ended” and “iterative” to encourage exploration. “We wanted makers to find their way in large sandboxes,” he says. The space includes a computer science lab and engineering lab, but also a leadership lab where students are encouraged to talk about how their projects fit into a larger cultural conversation.
Exposing young kids to the skills they need to succeed in the tech industry is the right thing to do, but it still doesn’t solve the bias in hiring in the tech workplace to which statistics point. Of course, changing that is going to be a very tall order.
The perceived skills gap between men and women, and whites and non-whites can only go so far in explaining the diversity deficit in the tech sector. In the real world, the way tech companies operate today don’t offer a level playing field for women or non-white ethnic groups. Sadly, they’re missing out on acquiring extremely gifted people, who just happen to be people who don’t look like the characters in Mad Men or Silicon Valley.
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