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Diversity and the tech meritocracy

samuraiseoul profile image Scott Lavigne ・2 min read

Yesterday here on dev.to Sarthak Sharma(sarthology) posted an article about Hong Kong needing our help. In the post he described also how the use of ISO 3166 can be used to push a political agenda. He also explains that he was made aware of this issue from his Taiwanese developer friend who is also a dev.to user.

This got me thinking about a thing I read when I was doing research into hiring developers, and how the interview process and hiring decisions are made in a meritocratic way most places. Meritocracy being the idea of hiring based on one's achievements, knowledge, and demonstrated skills rather than based on who they know, bribery, or some other metric.

I can't find the thing I read at that time but it was about hiring for diversity and how it relates to meritocratic metrics. The article explained something along the lines of:

"If your organization only has one main demographic such as young white males, then your organization's view of what is a 'merit' will be skewed. Therefore hiring purely for diversity can realign the criteria for what is a merit into something more representative of reality."

That always stuck with me as something that really seemed true. However as a member of the main demographic here(young white male) I was unable to really imagine what some of those other merits could be. The post yesterday showed me a little insight though. Simply being from a foreign country or someone who exist between two cultures such as a Korean-American could provide similar insights as above.

I have a small list that I've thought of but would love to see more, or be told ideas on my list are wrong or discriminatory, or offensive!

  • Political things such as above that could make a bad or incorrect address form or push a possibly harmful agenda
  • LGBT issues that could push alienating gender selects or use non-inclusive language or the like
  • Various disabilities that could cause a UX that is unusable for a part of the population due to motor, visual, hearing or other impairments
  • Different cultural experiences that if known, would prevent offending a subset of customers, or maybe could tell you that some business initiative would not work because of the mindset of the people its targeting.

So I'm wanting to get feedback from the lovely community here, what are some diversity based merits that people don't think about? What are some examples you have from your own workplace where a person from a different background brought up a good point? Do you have examples where someone with a different background could have brought up a point if they were there?

Thanks for reading and I want to hear from you!

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vizune profile image
Sasha Richardson

I have an example of someone from a different background bringing up good points. A Junior Account Manager was recently recruited at the company. She studied social sciences at University and was an advocate for web accessibility.

The company were researching UK council sites because a future project was going to involve building one ourselves (where web accessibility is crucially important). The boss noticed a feature on one of the websites that he wanted to be implemented. It said "Visited Pages" where it saves the web pages you visited on the site for easier access next time you visit (e.g. a lot of people visit the site to find out what day their trash/recycling bins will be collected by the council).

She made a very valid point that this site also had pages with advice for those experiencing domestic abuse/violence at home and it would put the user at even further risk if someone else in the household used the same computer (or went through their phone) saw that they visited those pages.

When we think of people from "different backgrounds" we tend to think of race, gender, sexuality, etc. We should also consider those that don't come from the traditional educational background and those that studied other subjects not similar to Computer Science as they can also bring great value to discussions and decisions being made.

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samuraiseoul profile image
Scott Lavigne Author

Oh wow, that's a super interesting insight I would have never in a million years thought of! Thanks for sharing! :D

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desolosubhumus profile image
Desolo Sub Humus 🌎🌍

That's actually a good list there. A very specific issue is one the world is dealing with now. Have you ever noticed how Alexa, Cortana, Google Home, Siri, and just about every other digital assistant has a default female voice, and in some cases, ONLY a female voice? Have you noticed that each and every one of them are programmed to be subservient?

Subservient female digital assistants have actually caused a cultural shift for the worse in terms of how women are treated. While the difference between a real human woman and a digital assistant with a female voice is obvious, deep down, in the most primitive parts of our brain, people equate the two as one and the same.

The result is that now we are raising a new generation of kids who don't see any issue with telling their mom or any other woman that they are 'supposed to do what I say'. We are also reinforcing scientifically debunked claims that women don't have feelings or that women are too emotional and too feeble-minded to function without a men to guide them and tell them what to do.

Imagine how easily we could have avoided letting tech roll back women's rights and our fight against sexism and misogyny by simply having women on the team that developed the first digital assistant?

Another example is when auto-focusing tech that enabled webcams to track human faces was introduced. It was quite the scandal when people first realized that it only tracked white people's and other pale-skinned people's faces while completely ignoring anyone with darker skin. Having a person of color on the developing team could have solved that problem before public release.

Then there are automatic phone services that do not pick up female voices. Last month, I had to call in to the VA to continue my disability pay and I couldn't get the bot to pick up on anything I said, no matter how loud I spoke or how much inflection I used. My husband asked me to write down the information needed to get the call to go through, used it to call for me, and handed the phone back as soon as we got an actual human on the line. The bot did not have any problem understanding him, no matter how quietly and calmly he spoke and no matter how much he mumbled. As long as there aren't any women programming these bots, and as long as it's not considered an issue by people who missed to memo that yes, there are female military veterans, women will still have to rely on men to make phone calls for them.

Tech and code aren't inherently racist or sexist, but they can be programmed to behave as if they are all too easily when the developing teams are entirely too homogeneous.

Even if we could solve that, there's still the issue of poorer and rural communities being left out. After all, using the health app my company's insurance provider requires us to use has left me with some interestingly bad advice. For example, the app suggested that I could lower my stress levels by taking an impromptu vacation and walking on a secluded beach whenever I felt stressed. Gosh, it must be nice to be able to schedule myself vacations whenever and have a summer house on my own tropical beach. It's too bad that I couldn't afford a vacation, much less a beach house or an island, or that I'm land-locked in a desert, or that my company requires me to have a 'flexible work schedule' (Vacations are counted by hours, not days, the boss can call you in from vacation or regular time off anytime, and scheduled hours are posted weekly and subject to change with every week's shifts and workdays being different from the last).

Imagine how companies like Uber might change if more poor or rural people were hired to help design a better business model for the company?

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samuraiseoul profile image
Scott Lavigne Author

Thanks for sharing that info. I hadn't thought about rural vs urban, or the voice things before. Those are great points!

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blindfish3 profile image
Ben Calder

On this subject the PerfMatters presentation by Tatiana Mac is definitely worth watching.