Imran's personal blog

February 28, 2016

Tech’s diversity problem

Filed under: Uncategorized — ipeerbhai @ 8:32 pm

The New York Times recently ran a story addressing Tech’s diversity problem:

In the story, they wrote about similar problems the Boston Symphony Orchestra had with diversity back in the 60s.  Here’s the bit I find fascinating — The Boston Symphony of that time rarely got female applicants, but when they switched to anonymous auditions and started hiring more women as a result, they started to get more women applicants, too!  It seems people are rational — they won’t apply to something if they believe they won’t get in.

In the tech community, there’s a lack of diversity — with many women and some racial minorities not applying to positions.  I’ve always thought this — why would they apply if they know (1)they’re less likely to get in; and (2) are less likely to advance?

This feedback effect — lack of diversity causes lack of applicants which causes more lack of diversity — is a loop that must be broken.  Many people I’ve talked to in tech blame the, “But X group never applies to our positions!  We’d hire them!” as a “true excuse” for not hiring diversity.  The statement is true — many positions open don’t have diverse applicants — yet the underlying cause is the existing lack of diversity.  Big tech would actually have to have reverse discrimination in place to counteract the existing structural problems — but big tech believes in the myth of meritocracy ( which I do not believe in — As Adam Smith pointed out hundreds of years ago, people are more similar in ability as individuals than different. ), and simply cannot see the forest for the trees.

This structural problem explains a lot.  Why are women good at math until the 3rd grade?  For the same reason that pre-school kids normalize achievement when they reach 3rd grade — that’s when there’s enough cognitive ability in a human to see structural bias.  The girls see the structural bias against them in society and redirect their efforts to where their payoff likelihood maximizes relative to others making the same choices.  This is a weird concept — Let’s pretend you’re going to be a “code Janitor”.  This “code janitor” is the idea of the worst job you can have as a developer, whatever it may be, in your company.  It likely is still well paid relative to a receptionist.  So, the purely rational choice would be to strive towards the code janitor position instead of the receptionist.  So, why are women and minorities more likely to strive to being the receptionist?  Because they have a more fair chance at getting the entry position in reception and can advance to the pinnacle of the field unfettered — whereas, as a developer, they’ll face higher hurdles to entry and advancement.  Because humans judge themselves relatively — a high-level receptionist will judge himself against low-level receptionists — it is rational to strive towards reception instead of technology.

The same applies to the pre-school kids ( who are educationally advanced beyond other 3rd graders ), who see the structural bias caused by normalized grading, and adjust their efforts.  These effects show up universally in 3rd grade because humans essentially gain cognitive abilities at very similar rates until they succumb to the incentives in their environment.

Thus, in tech, there will be lots of subsidies thrown at ineffective solutions to the diversity problem — because the core problem is structural, and humans intelligent — the amount of money thrown at education and diversity efforts are too little compared to the expected lifetime earnings differential a woman or minority expects to see.

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