Buzzwords, Quantifying the Unquantifiable, and Toxic Environments

September 16, 2015 | 7 Minute Read

Diversity has become The Big Thing in tech. Everyone is talking about it. Companies releasing their diversity numbers, from IBM and Google to Slack. Here in PDX, a lot of tech companies have signed the Portland Diversity Pledge. People talk about the problems with the pipeline. There are a lot of pie charts and bar graphs showing the number of women working as software developers in different companies.

I’m glad this has become such a big conversation, but it’s also frustrating to see the lack of nuance that often goes with it. It tends to be a heavily numbers-based conversation. Companies post their ratios; how many employees (devs and non-devs) are women, how many are non-white (the statistics never seem to get beyond those two axes). This has the effect of turning a complex, multifaceted topic into a list of checkboxes. Do you have enough female employees? Do you have enough non-white employees? How many is “enough?” When can you stop trying?

Numbers are important, to a certain extent. It’s telling that most tech companies seem to struggle with getting the number of women above the usual 15-30%. It’s been suggested that when there are 17% women in the room, men see it as equal numbers, and when women are a third (33%) of the group, men see it as women being the majority. (Source, although if anyone has a link directly to that study that would be awesome.) But numbers cannot and will never tell the full story. Diversity is an amazing spectrum.

When tech companies say “diversity,” the main focus is usually “more women,” which implicitly translates to “more white women,” which is the absolute lowest bar of diversity. (Disclaimer: I am a white woman. A lot of my examples will be pulled from sexism and not other -isms, and the sexism studies may lack intersectionality.) If the conversation gets past the gender imbalance, the next focus is the racial imbalance. Which are both valid axes to commentate on! Tech is primarily white, and primarily men. This is definitely something we should be talking about. But this conversation needs to go further. There are a lot of underrepresented groups that are never mentioned when talking about diversity in tech, like people with disabilities, or socioeconomic status (although I recognize the latter is often closely tied to race). As a queer woman, I rarely see anyone talk about sexuality in relation to diversity in tech, or expand the conversation about the gender imbalance to include the entire spectrum of gender identity. Ageism is an awful, awful problem in tech, and is rarely, if ever, talked about in the context of diversity. And these axes compound. Ageism hits women (in tech and elsewhere) far harder than it does men.

According to a NCWIT paper from 2010, “Forty-one percent of women leave technology companies after 10 years of experience, compared to only 17 percent of men.” This is women leaving the tech industry entirely, not just switching jobs. Some leave because it’s toxic. Some leave, temporarily or permanently, to have kids, and even if they’ve intended to come back into tech it can be difficult to reenter due to ageism and sexism.

Yes, I think the pipeline can be diversified. But there’s not much point in improving the pipeline if the attrition rate of women (and other underrepresented groups) is so high. As it stands, the rate of attrition is double that the rate of women graduating as CS majors, CS majors being a major part of the tech industry pipeline. As Kronda Adair points out in her amazing talk “Put Up or Shut Up: An Open Letter to Tech Companies Seeking Diverse Teams,” “You can’t just bring people down the pipeline to the sewage plant and think that you’re going to actually solve the problem.” Or as Kate Heddleston puts it:

Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn’t enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.

I have two running lists: one of companies that I will not work for, because I’ve heard awful/frustrating/mildly terrifying things about them through the grapevine. I hear a lot through the grapevine, even as a junior dev. These are companies that I know are highly likely to be sexist (not to mention other -isms) in a lot of little ways (see: microaggressions). Some of the companies on this list have other marks against them. For example, as someone who’s spent a lot of time in customer support, if I hear a company is awful to its support people, that’s enough to bump it off the list, no matter how nice they are to their devs. The second list is companies that I’ve heard good things about, and would consider working for if/when I leave my current company. (I currently have no intention to leave my current gig; I really frigging love my job and the people I work with.) This second list is much shorter than the first.

Slack is on this very short second list. Why? Erica Baker writes a lot about how happy she is there and what a great environment Slack provides for her. (Exhibit A, Exhibit B.) The things she prioritizes for are things I look for. From the outside, Slack’s diversity statistics look a lot like everyone else’s, but those numbers don’t give the whole picture. Slack recognizes this too, noting in their blog post that while women are still a minority within the company, 41% of the staff have a female manager, which is also vital information. Experiences like Erica’s are really important to me because they give me a much better idea of how I would actually be treated. It’s not quantifiable, and it’s not contained in a company’s ratios.

It is, however, information disseminated through the grapevine. Those two lists of companies I will and won’t work for are almost entirely decided by what I’ve heard about the lived experiences of people who have worked at them. I listen to what anyone has to say about their workplace, but I place more weight on the commentary and opinions of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups, because they are the most likely to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. If someone from an underrepresented group likes a company’s work environment, it’s much more likely that I will like it too.

So yes, those pie charts and bar graphs of diversity statistics are important, and I do pay attention to them. But they don’t show the whole story. This needs to be a bigger conversation about how to foster healthy work environments. If you create a warm, welcoming, supportive environment, people will hear about it and will want to come work for you. This is the only way to sustainably create a diverse workforce.

I had lunch with some coworkers yesterday. There were four of us. Out of those four, three were women. Out of those four, two were queer. (If you’re curious, everyone at the table was white, so we definitely have room to improve.) I love all of my coworkers, but this was a quietly momentous occasion for me because it is so rare at work to be surrounded by people like me. Too often, diversity is often treated as an end goal. But ultimately, the end goal should really be to make sure your employees are happy and healthy. In this context, diversity is a means to an end: it guarantees you don’t have unicorns who feel alienated from the rest of the employees. Everyone has a place to fit in.

Further Reading: