I can’t fully remember when I first recognized that something to do with tech “diversity” efforts were a bit… off. I think it was during the first Women Techmakers Summit. It was early 2014, and Google put on this relatively large conference at the Mountain View campus for to celebrate International Women’s Day. I remember being impressed at the scale, while also thinking that Google had never done anything approaching that for Black History Month. The bones the black folks were thrown were some changes in the menus and some one-off events the Black Googler Network put together.
The summit itself was great. Were I a white woman in tech, I probably would have been delighted at everything. But I’m a black woman in tech, so things didn’t feel quite so good to me.
The intro to the summit itself was telling. It was titled “Opening Remarks and Diversity At Google,” yet there was no mention of any other forms of diversity besides “women.” The summit was held before the first release of Google’s diversity numbers, when it had not yet started tagging “and people of color” to every mention of women related to diversity.
Diversity is now a big thing in tech. Google releasing their employee demographics a short two months after the Women Techmakers event set off a wave of other tech companies releasing that information. No company wants to be seen as a place that doesn’t celebrate diversity. Usually the trumpeting about diversity comes after a company releases the mediocre-to-terrible numbers that highlight just how recently they began noticing the homogeneity of their workforce. “This is important to us, we’re working on it,” is often the message. The work, however, seems to favor one group more than others: women. Whether by design or by inertia, the favor seems to land on white women in particular.
The women’s issue
Salesforce recently had its annual conference in downtown San Francisco conference. This year, they dedicated an entire day to a women’s leadership summit. Let’s leave out that there was no “and people of color” leadership summit. Let’s not mention that they could only manage to find one black woman that actually works in tech to speak. And let us never speak of the last–minute addition of Gayle King and her baffling Q&A. Let’s only reflect on the truth that came out of this summit: that for many, diversity usually means white women. Not to leave any doubts about this, both Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff and cofounder Parker Harris made sure to mention that they are focused on (white) women.
The panel, “Building an Inclusive Workplace,” was billed as the following: “Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff and co-founder Parker Harris will talk with Kara Swisher, co-executive editor at Re/code, about how Salesforce is tackling issues related to diversity in tech.”
On the panel, which has since been retconned from “Building an Inclusive Workplace” to “Advancing Women in the Workplace,” Swisher, who has been a rare champion for all forms of diversity in tech, pointedly asked the two leaders of Salesforce about diversity beyond just women. At this point, Benioff and Harris could have stated their commitment to advancing diversity on all fronts within their company. Instead they doubled down on their focus on women:
Harris: Well, right now I’m focused on women, you know, and it’s back to Marc’s focus on priorities. I have employees, that are, you know, other types of diversity coming to me and saying well why aren’t we focused on these other areas as well, and I said yes we should focus them but, you know, the phrase we use internally is “If everything is important, then nothing is important.”
Swisher asked Benioff, “Is overall diversity as important to you or do you think you just have to move, as Parker was saying, move piece by piece?”
Benioff: Overall diversity is extremely important to us, right now, this is the major issue. I think when we feel like we’ve got this, you know, a little bit more under control, then I think that one is gonna surface as the major thing we’re focusing on. We’re not ignoring it, it’s something that we support, it’s something that we’re working on, but this is our major focus right now, is the women’s issue.
These words echo the message many Silicon Valley companies have saying with money: Get in line, people of color. Wait for (white) women to get theirs, then we’ll get to you.
The Grace Hopper Conference, put on by the Anita Borg Institute, is a celebration of women in computing. Every year it invites women in tech from around the world to come together in one place. Attendance grows with every conference. Last year, over 8,000 women joined the celebration in Phoenix. This year, over 12,000 plan to head to Houston.
With this many attendees and connections to many big-name tech companies, the conference should have access to virtually every woman in tech. Yet for the 2015 conference, they could not manage to find one black woman to be a “headline” speaker. Two white men are included in the set of headline speakers at a conference celebrating women in technology, but not a single black woman.
This would be surprising if not for the fact that there is not a single black woman on the Anita Borg board of trustees. The leaders at Anita Borg see themselves represented by the headline speakers at Grace Hopper, so the lack of black speakers probably doesn’t even register as a problem. This is the root of the problem with colorless diversity.
Corporations that practice colorless diversity do not see a lack of racial diversity and representation as an important problem to be solved. The “women’s issue,” on the other hand, is urgent.
As a result of familial bonds and a savior complex-driven need to rescue the damsel in distress, the white male employees of the white male-dominated industry have learned to empathize with the struggles of their women in tech. How frequently we hear the refrain, “Well I had a daughter/wife/sister and suddenly I realized that I didn’t want them to have to experience the problems in the tech industry, so I want to fix the problems.”
Rarely, though, will you ever hear white people lamenting about working conditions that their black or brown children, spouses and siblings might have to endure. They rarely have those relationships, so they aren’t forced to develop empathy for brown and black people.
Colorless diversity is okay with spending tens of millions of dollars on conferences, summits, retreats, and outreach for and about white women, but finds it distasteful when others point out the disparity in spending for people of color. Colorless diversity would have black and brown people sit down and wait their turn.
Let me be clear: I’m not writing this because I think it’s bad that companies are spending money on diversity programs for women. These programs are necessary.
I write this because while they are spending huge amounts of money on women in tech, they aren’t spending equally on people of color in tech. The little money they are spending isn’t focused on celebrating or including the people of color in tech, it’s aimed at kids of color who might never be interested in this industry, as though the people of color already in the industry are a lost cause.
I also write this because of late, I’ve noticed a bit of an issue: white women seem to be satisfied with the state of colorless diversity in the tech industry. Things are changing. Money is being spent. Numbers are improving. This is good. They rarely, if ever, speak about the dearth of black and brown women at events aimed at women. While making lots of noise about all-male panels, they rarely make a fuss about panels that don’t include black and brown women, let alone refuse to participate in them. They rarely, if ever, make the decision to cede the privileges, power, or space granted to them by their whiteness to a person of color.
I’m done with fighting for the kind of diversity that unequally benefits one group. I’m done fighting for “women in tech.” I won’t fight against “women in tech.” I will still cheer for “women in tech” when progress is made. But women in tech don’t need me to battle for them. They have the Benioffs and Parkers and Anita Borgs and the whole of Team Colorless Diversity to fight for them.
Somehow, I’ve stumbled onto a platform that gives me some amount of privilege in that I have a voice people listen to. I will not, cannot, use that privilege to reinforce and support problematic power structures. Instead I will use that privilege to raise the voices of the brown and black people that colorless diversity seems to gloss over. I will use that privilege to call out white feminism in tech when I see it. I will use that privilege to support and celebrate the people and organizations who champion intersectionality. I will stand on my soapbox, for however long I’m up here, and shout the triumphs of black women in tech. So when people ask me about the latest white woman to become a tech darling, instead I’m going to speak about designer Kristy Tillman and mobile developer Kaya Thomas and Morgan Debaun, founder and CEO of the tech media startup Blavity.
And no, I’m not going to Grace Hopper. I can’t support a conference that doesn’t seem to understand the value and importance of intersectionality and representation.