Diversity in Tech and the Myth of Meritocracy

In a thoughtful essay posted last week, writer Jamelle Bouie explored the many reasons why White men might dominate tech writing and the tech industry. Bouie explained that implicit networks, rather than overt racism, are a root cause for the lack of diversity in the field. Not long after Bouie shared the piece via twitter, tech blogger/millionaire Jason Calacanis challenged his assertions, igniting a debate over whether tech’s diversity issues stem from structural barriers or people of color simply not working hard enough (or their disinterest in the sector altogether). In his own blog post, Calacanis stated, “the tech industry and tech media should be extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’re the most open meritocracy I’ve ever seen in industry.” For many, these sentiments were all too familiar.

Last year we saw a similar twitter debate arise over the all-White, all-male speaker lineup for the Brit Ruby computer programming conference. Conference organizers defended the homogenous speaker list, explaining that the panelists were chosen on “merit.”

And of course, there was the Forbes essay by tech writer and entrepreneur Gene Marks, who explained what he would do “if he were a poor black kid” (which was compromised by the fact that he was none of the above). Chief among his ideas was to use “the free technology available to help me study” without realizing that his poor-black-kid alter ego might not have access to a computer, let alone the Internet (on top of facing the numerous challenges associated with poverty).  

These sentiments highlight the misperceptions that many in the tech community have about technology’s ability to avoid the shortcomings of our society. Because technology has brought much of the world together, it is hard to believe that anyone was left behind in the process. However, people of color face real barriers to accessing technology and building successful careers in the industry.

This was the experience for Kimberly Bryant, Founder and Executive Director of Black Girls Code. Bryant, a biotechnology/engineering professional with a computer science background, moved to Silicon Valley several years ago to launch a startup. When she began networking, she was shocked at how often she was the only woman and only person of color in the room, and how challenging it was to make traction. “For me, as a woman of color, even coming from a long career in corporate America, there’s some resources and networks that I just don’t have that a 20-some-odd year old college drop out from Stanford does. And that’s a mountain that I have to climb every day,” she said.

For many others, basic computer and Internet access is the primary barrier to using technology, let alone considering a profession in the field.

Bryant pointed to the practice of “pattern matching” as further marginalizing women and people of color. Pattern matching, a common method among venture capitalists, measures potential investments against the traits of past successful ventures. According to CNN, criteria can include someone’s “track record, personality type and alma mater, which market the company is targeting and how its peers are performing.”

In response to the lack of diversity she witnessed, Bryant founded Black Girls Code, a non-profit organization dedicated to introducing young girls of color to digital technology and computer coding. The organization’s vision is to increase the number of women of color working in the digital technology field.

For many others, basic computer and Internet access is the primary barrier to using technology, let alone considering a profession in the field. According to The Pew Research Center, one in five adults in the U.S. does not use the Internet. And while people of color use mobile devices at higher rates, smart phones are not ideal for applying to jobs online or doing research for school assignments. A recent Wall Street Journal piece highlighted how some high school students are resorting to studying at McDonalds for free Internet access.

Chancellar Williams of Free Press explained that “there are structural policies in place that really undergird the way people are able to access technology and their experience with it.” Through his efforts, Williams works to ensure that media and telecommunications policies serve the public interest, and that people gain greater access to media and technology. “You can believe that technology is a very liberating force, but if you believe that, you need to be working as hard as possible to make sure that everyone in the country has the same type of access,” he said. Otherwise, “you’re not getting the full breadth of the human experience and you’re sort of deluding yourself if you think that you are.”

According to Mark Lloyd, Director of the Media Policy Initiative and former Chief Diversity Officer for the FCC, capturing such diversity of experience is critical to any field. “The degree to which you can bring different perspectives to the work increases your