Technoethicist: The argument for a Philly Tech Diversity Pledge - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 29, 2018 7:31 am

Technoethicist: The argument for a Philly Tech Diversity Pledge

If Minnesota can do it, so can we. Technoethicist Greg Ippolito makes the case for why gender and racial parity in the tech sector starts with a commitment.

How do Philly's inclusivity efforts stack up?

(Photo by Flickr user WOCinTech Chat, used under a Creative Commons license)

The Technoethicist is a regular column addressing tech’s ethical quandaries. Submit a question to technoethicist@technical.ly and IMA founder Greg Ippolito will offer his thoughtful advice.


Q: Can we please stop arguing over whether there’s a diversity problem in tech, and actually start doing something about it? — Elaina M., Kensington

Susan Fowler’s blog post about her time working for Uber has become the stuff of legend. If you’re a man in tech, or a woman in tech who’s been fortunate enough to work for progressive organizations, this may have been shocking to read. But, for everyone else, it wasn’t news at all.

As detailed in The Atlantic’s  “Why is Silicon Valley so awful to women?”, most women in tech have gotten used to:

the sensation of walking up to a group of male colleagues and noticing that they fell quiet, as though they’d been talking about something they didn’t want her to hear. [Or, being asked] to take notes in meetings. [Or, finding] herself standing in elevators at tech conferences late at night when a guy would decide to get handsy.

This issue has been part of the public discourse for at least six years (the first piece on gender inequality in tech I remember reading about was published by Slate in 2012.) But, if there was, of late, any lingering doubt about how widespread and normative this behavior has become, the “Elephant in the Valley” survey laid it to rest. This research, conducted by seven female tech leaders, revealed the following startling truths about women in the tech industry:

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  • 88 percent have had clients/colleagues address a question to a male peer that should’ve been addressed to them
  • 84 percent have been criticized for being “too aggressive”
  • 75 percent have been asked about marital status, children, or family life during interviews
  • 60 percent have suffered unwanted sexual advances

And, just six months ago, in September 2017, Technical.ly Philly published a piece by Briana Morgan — titled, “Yes, Philly’s tech scene does have a sexual harassment problem” — which shined a light on the problem at home.

So, to Elaina’s point above: This isn’t a question of if there’s a gender inequality problem in tech. It’s a question of what should be done about it.

(There was some reason for celebration last month, when SmartAsset’s annual women in tech study found Philadelphia to be the fourth-best city for women in tech — up six positions from the report’s 2017 edition. But even in a leading tech city like Philly, women fill only 31.7 percent of tech jobs, according to Philly Mag, and make only 92 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.)

From an ethical perspective, there is no reasonable argument to accept or ignore the status quo.

Whether we see it through the lens of Kant’s categorical imperative, or through Mill’s concept of utilitarianism, we arrive at the same end: It is immoral to treat people differently simply because of their gender, race, etc., and it damages the greater society when we do.

But the question of how to change things going forward gets a little hairy.

The tech industry has taken proactive steps to control the conversation, lest it be wrested from their grip. Silicon Valley companies — including Intel, Google and Apple — have launched programs, and allocated multimillion-dollar budgets, toward “promoting diversity.” Now, before you roll your eyes, it’s only fair to note that some progress is being made through these programs.

For example, on the Inclusion & Diversity page of Apple’s website, the company boasts that its “female representation is steadily increasing, and we’re proud of the progress we’re making. For example, 36 percent of our employees under 30 are women. That’s an increase of 5 percentage points since 2014.” If this representation continues to grow on that trajectory, Apple will have a 50/50 gender split of workers under 30 sometime in the year 2027.*

That’s nine years from now. Many will be happy to learn that we’re moving in that direction; others will find it lacking in urgency. But, this is what Apple is promising; and, other tech companies are offering different, if not dissimilar, promises. The question is whether we can trust that these promises will be delivered if driven completely by the companies themselves. Near the bottom of the aforementioned Inclusion & Diversity page, Apple states:

Meaningful change takes time. We’re proud of our accomplishments, but we have much more work to do. As we strive to do better, Apple will remain open. As it always has been. And always will be.

“Always will be” is what Apple is asking us to count on. But the claim that the company “always has been” striving for this fair balance is objectively untrue. By its own reporting (as stated three paragraphs back), up until three years ago, only 31 percent of Apple’s under-30 employees were women. Which makes one wonder: What percentage of Apple’s employees were women in 2008? Or 1997? Or 1984? And, how many of those women are/were in leadership roles?

When left to their own devices, tech’s industry leaders have not made a priority of diversity and inclusion. That said, history is prologue. This is 2018. The culture is shifting. Older people are talking about being “woke” unironically. So, do we give tech’s leaders a chance to right their past wrongs and push us forward? Or, do we, instead, demand systemic change from the outside-in? Or, do we settle on something in between?

This question extends beyond ethics. It’s a mixed issue that cuts across considerations of strategy, probability, pragmatism and faith. Looking at it analytically, to trust old-guard tech leaders to here-forth remain on the right side of history in a sustaining manner, seems foolish. By contrast, to force inclusion and diversity through, say, legislation, seems potentially divisive, for two main reasons:

  1. Since nobody likes being told what to do, we’d create a situation where leaders would likely do what they “have to,” but not “buy in”
  2. It would run counter to the very spirit of the movement itself (i.e., if inclusion and diversity is about recognizing and respecting the value of all people, regardless of race, gender, etc., then putting one group on-notice seems counterintuitive, if not hypocritical)

So, what lies in between these two extremes? An agreement.

Think of the Paris Climate Accord. While this isn’t international law, it may arguably prove to be just as effective. The agreement, by its very nature, builds consensus among its participants while making them mutually accountable for the outcomes it seeks. (In fact, now that Syria will join the agreement, the U.S. remains the only country not participating.)

An agreement of this sort, designed to drive more inclusion and diversity in Philly tech, could have a similar effect.

This isn’t a new idea. Back in 2016, more than 30 national tech companies — including Airbnb, Intel, Lyft, Medium, Pinterest and Spotify — signed the Tech Inclusion Pledge. In doing so, each vowed to pursue, and eventually achieve, specific goals to “make their workforce representative of the U.S. population [and] disclose publicly just how they are doing.”

Similar pledges are being made on the local level, as well. The Minnesota Tech Diversity Pledge, signed by many companies in and around the Twin Cities, is an attempt to “change the workforce to be more inclusive of underrepresented communities like women, people of color, and LGBTQ.” In Portland, Ore., the TechTown Diversity Pledge “bring[s] together [local] companies to collectively advance workplace diversity and inclusion in order to grow the industry while broadening prosperity.”

And, just in case that last bit ran past your eyes unnoticed: “to grow the industry” is no small reason for these pledges. Ample research indicates that companies with diverse staffs benefit in numerous ways:

  • Their teams tend to be more creative and innovative
  • Their staffs tend to be more engaged and challenged
  • Employee satisfaction and retention is significantly higher
  • Increased job satisfaction drives increased productivity and quality
  • Diversity of staff means diversity of networks, which brings more opportunities

Basically, this is about more than acting ethically. Beyond the humanitarian benefit, it behooves companies to have progressive hiring strategies; when you set inclusion, diversity and fair representation as a business goal, your bottom line benefits.

So, back to Elaina’s question: Can something be done about the diversity problem in Philly’s tech community?

The short answer: Yes. We can start by recognizing the problem and giving each other a pledge to end it. That pledge will require specific goals, and end dates, and a commitment from tech leaders to reach them. But, yes, Philly tech’s version of 50/50 by 2020 is within our reach.

Come on, Philly. We can do this. Let’s become the people we want to be. Let’s draw a map that leads to future workplaces where people of all genders, races, etc., are fairly represented — across each company, and at the leadership levels — and, earn compensation based on their achievements.

As Mickey GoldmillRocky Balboa’s late, great manager, and an icon of Philadelphia’s can-do spirit — might ask: “Whadda we waiting fer?!”


*Apple is almost begging us to ask, “Wait, what about women over 30?” This is emblematic of just how layered and complex this issue is. In the spirit of “one thing at a time,” and because you just pored over 1,500 words, I’m going to spare you and leave this question unaddressed. For now.

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