Throughout the West there are certain groups of people that are underrepresented within the software industry and who are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs in software development. This is a fact known by many software professionals and there is some great work going on to help correct the imbalance. Despite this, there is still resistance to this work and there is even resistance to accept or even acknowledge the underlying issues that cause the imbalance. Experience has shown me that much of this resistance is down to a lack of easily accessible information and knowledge on the subject matter. Even those I have spoken to that don’t resist the ideas by and large seem to be less informed on the subject than I would have hoped and I have struggled to find comprehensive and accessible sources of information that cover the wide ranging issues at play. Much of the literature on the diversity imbalance and its underlying causes is very complex, certainly too much to cover in depth here and I see this as being a large part of the problem. With that in mind I’d like to take a moment of your time to share a high-level look at some of the underlying issues that drive the underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups.
Just as a heads up, this is written by a software developer living in Britain and so I will be using mostly examples from Britain and there will of course be a focus on software development and the STEM fields but most of the issues here are globally applicable. We are humans wherever we live and work, for good and bad. Furthermore, while I have worked to make this a comprehensive article from the outset, it is by no means intended to be a finished doctoral submission, I want this to be simpler and accessible. I am still researching this material myself in my own time and so I would ask you to treat this as the start of a living document that will continue to be updated as I learn more and uncover more information to share here. If you have anything to add then I would be grateful to hear from you!
A knowledge gap
There is plenty going on in the software development world to bring to attention the issues surrounding the lack of diversity. I’ll give a few examples:
- The prominent Martin Fowler covers an excellent introduction to the issues faced by Historically Discriminated Against groups in software development: http://martinfowler.com/bliki/HistoricallyDiscriminatedAgainst.html and discusses the merits of diversity beyond its inherent ethical goodness: http://martinfowler.com/bliki/DiversityImbalance.html
- The U.S. tech industry continues to become more motivated to improve the diversity imbalance: http://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2015/08/12/the-lack-of-diversity-in-tech-is-a-cultural-issue
- Elise Wei recently discussed how to improve diversity within an organisation: https://medium.com/@EliseWei/diversity-and-the-tech-worker-life-cycle-6605e504854f#.xrdcoulwl
- There is a lot of good stuff going on in the developer community such as Black Girls Code: http://techcrunch.com/2016/02/01/black-girls-code-founder-kimberly-bryant-on-racism-and-implicit-bias/ and Code First: Girls in the UK: http://www.codefirstgirls.org.uk/
Despite all of this, I still see a gap here where a lack of knowledge and even a lack of exposure in general to the driving issues behind this movement is creating an obstacle.
I’ll start with a point that really must be driven home: there is no evidence that people from one group should be any more likely than those from another group to be attracted to and to naturally succeed in any given field (i.e. STEM). It feels weird that I should be compelled to explain what should be a widely understood truth but it is something that comes up time and time again. This belief, this misconception, is very dangerous as has been proven throughout history and by humanity’s great atrocities. This misconception has been proven to be unsubstantiated by research in the human genome project:
Furthermore, modern research is turning up more and more evidence that male and female brains aren’t actually all that different and a lot of the differences we do see result from social pressures:
This in itself should be enough for a reasonable person to realise that there are forces at work beyond ‘natural selection’ which are driving the diversity imbalance. But this is not always the case. Martin Fowler touches on this failing in his articles, where he expresses dismay at otherwise reasonable people falling for tautological reasoning to explain the lack of women in software development. I understand and share Martin’s frustration but we must be careful not to accuse anyone of any misgivings here as this might only serve to steel any existing resistance.
Having taken an interest in social equality for some time now I have often been surprised at where I find resistance to the ideas behind the work to improve the balance of diversity. Over the years I have heard such resistance from some very intelligent people and so I feel we should treat this as a significant part of the overall issue and something we must also overcome on the road to equality. I don’t want to blame anyone for failing to understand the issues here as they are complex and in my experience most people tend not to be encouraged to think about these kinds of issues on a regular basis. In fact it takes some dedicated consideration and research to really get a grasp of the underlying problems and so I don’t think it is fair to accuse anyone of any shortcomings in their resistance here. Instead we should look at this as a chance to open up further dialog around the issues.
The crux of resistance
Ultimately the resistance I encounter when discussing work to improve diversity seems to boil down to a misunderstanding of its raison d’etre . Why is the lack of diversity a problem that we must actively address? I’d like to start with one point which was made by Martin Fowler in his Thoughtworks article ‘Historically Discriminated Against’:
“It takes many generations to undo the effect of centuries of discrimination, so just because the law and society are beginning to catch up doesn’t mean the work of supporting historically-discriminated-against groups can stop.”
What is this effect that Martin speaks of, why is there still a lack of diversity and why do those from disadvantaged groups require direct help?
I’ll use the term ‘disadvantaged’ in relation to these groups from here on in because the issues faced by ‘historically discriminated against’ groups also affect groups that might not fall under that term coined by Thoughtworks. An example of this is the communities of the white working class ethnic group in Britain that have been politically and socially neglected to the point that they are now seeing families that are third generation unemployed and suffering the full force of the ill effects of poverty. There is clear evidence that this group is facing widespread discrimination but their situation is relatively new and many of the forces and factors involved in the failure of people from this group to succeed are still being learned and so I feel the term ‘disadvantaged’ is most appropriate.
In all cases the issues at play here are very complex and so rather than dig deep into the subject matter, I will summarize and list the key points, providing further reading for you to explore.
So why do those from disadvantaged groups require active assistance? Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. Perhaps still the largest, certainly one of the most debilitating, issue that people from disadvantaged groups can face is the cycle of poverty:
It is a well-known phenomenon and affects those who have suffered centuries of discrimination such as African and Native Americans as well as those who are experiencing a more recent trend of poverty such as the British white working class. To summarise, the phenomenon works like this: when you are born into a community where no one in your family or social group has succeeded then the odds are severely stacked against you succeeding. The impact of poverty is of course much more complex however than a simple limit on the success of those affected. It has considerable implications for the mental and physical health and even life expectancy of those trapped by it:
The cycle of poverty is one, albeit major, factor but there is more that we must consider. The effects of the cycle of poverty do not apply equally to all impoverished demographics. In England for instance, those from impoverished Pakistani or Black Caribbean backgrounds are still much more likely to succeed in school than those from white working class backgrounds. Furthermore, the Cycle of poverty does not explain the lack of women in STEM or the lower levels of pay for skilled professionals from disadvantaged groups. Research shows that part of the issue here is that a lack of diversity is self-fulfilling. Those from underrepresented groups are less likely to enter fields where their group is underrepresented because they can see that their group is underrepresented:
This type of problem can only ever be resolved with active support from those in the fields that demonstrate a lack of diversity.
Beyond economic issues, we move onto the social and cultural issues. These are much more nuanced, varying from one group to the next. However, there are some common points that should be known:
- First of all, discrimination STILL exists and it is STILL a problem, despite all the work to correct it. As many as a third of the British public class themselves as racist:
- Evidence from research shows that employers are still guilty of discriminatory hiring practices:
- Many from ethnic minorities still encounter racist bullying in the workplace:
- Recent research shows that well educated, well trained people from disadvantaged groups struggle for equality due to cultural segregation:
- As already mentioned, I still frequently hear the argument for natural selection. The concept is by its very definition discriminatory. If you dig deeper I’m sure you will find that this argument is always a fallacy. An example of a common form of argument along these lines revolves around the overrepresentation of African Americans in some sports (and thus the underrepresentation of white Americans in those sports, I have seen both arguments). What you are seeing is in fact further evidence of the disadvantage African Americans face in education.
- Discrimination also applies to groups identified by social status. Take the following article from a major English ‘Newspaper’ as an example:
- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1214549/Feral-youths-How-generation-violent-illiterate-young-men-living-outside-boundaries-civilised-society.htmlThe fact that such an article with such clear discriminatory language can even be published in England today is testament to the issues those from disadvantaged groups face… To quote “His life is already wasted”, how can the disenfranchised ever recover from that kind of societal attitude? It is nothing short of ostracism and it seems it is acceptable to many.
- A study from the Runnymede Trust found that the White Working Class are discriminated against for a range of factors from their names to their accents and the way they dress:
- And for the Brits amongst us, think of the last time you heard the word ‘Chav’ casually banded about. Think about what that word actually means to someone from a working class background, and the effect that such an attitude will have on a wide group of people.
- Within disadvantaged groups, expectations and behaviour change, a culture of discrimination can develop, resulting in low aspirations and even a social pressure to not-succeed. Furthermore, discriminatory attitudes from wider society results in underachievement of those from disadvantaged groups:
- Discrimination is not something that those who experience it should just be able to shrug off. Regularly Experiencing discrimination causes not only mental but also physical health issues. These issues range from depression and low self-esteem to high blood pressure and respiratory illness:
- I hope I don’t even need to link to any evidence of sexism on social media but it is worth re-iterating that people from disadvantaged groups who speak out against discrimination are often cut down by a torrent of abuse and threats of violence. Such people have had to move home due to the threats they have received. See ‘Gamergate’ for a starting point on this topic:
- Not a month goes by where I don’t hear of someone having to pluck up the courage to tell their story of the harassment they receive for being a woman or being a different colour:
- The majority of women in STEM education face a ‘predictable’ stream of sexual harassment, intimidation and isolation, many are driven out of STEM by this:
- Culture, gender bias and sexism constantly works against women in STEM fields:
- Apparently it is acceptable to see a female workforce as harmful:
- Apologies for the Wikipedia links but this is a very good starting point for reading up on the issues surrounding sexism in the workplace in the UK:
One thing I have found during my time reading this information to present here is that I underestimated the sheer scale of the problems faced by those from underrepresented groups. This I find concerning as I was already aware of issues here and a need to actively work to overcome them. I had clearly underestimated the size of the problem that we all face in overcoming inequality.
There are clear and real factors working against those from disadvantaged groups that has resulted in an imbalance in the diversity of the software development workforce. Certainly it is not simply a case of saying “Hey, you are equal in the eyes of the law so sort yourselves out”. If we do not work to correct the imbalance then these pressures will continue to impede on equality. Those from disadvantaged groups face complex and wide-ranging challenges that clearly have a significant, damaging effect on their ability to compete for a successful software development career. If we as software proffessionals don’t act to level the playing field then not only are we maintaining an unfair world but, as many studies have shown, we are missing out on the benefits that a more diverse workforce brings.
P.S. An anecdote
Anecdotally speaking, there is currently a considerable shortage of IT talent, at least in the region of the UK where I reside and I also hear similar noises coming from across the UK and farther afield, over the pond in North America (http://techcrunch.com/2016/03/04/computer-science-is-the-key-to-americas-skills-crisis/). In my region, this shortage is so significant that businesses I know of are adjusting their hiring strategies from on-demand to ongoing. This is not only a problem to businesses but to the STEM industries as a whole as demand on their output is only going to grow. Surely anything we do to encourage more talent in the industry is a good thing for our economy and our society! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…