The two mainstream newspapers that I read the most, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, both have recent articles about diversity and the tech industry, a topic which by now has considerable and well-deserved attention.

The New York Times article starts out with:

Like other Silicon Valley giants, Facebook has faced criticism over whether its work force and board are too white and too male. Last year, the social media behemoth started a new push on diversity in hiring and retention.

Now, it is extending its efforts into another corner: the outside lawyers who represent the company in legal matters.

Facebook is requiring that women and ethnic minorities account for at least 33 percent of law firm teams working on its matters.

The Wall Street Journal article says:

The tech industry has been under fire for years over the large percentage of white and Asian male employees and executives. Tech firms have started initiatives to try to combat the trend, but few have shown much progress.

The industry is now under scrutiny from the Labor Department for the issue. The department sued software giant Oracle Corp. earlier this year for allegedly paying white male workers more than other employees. Oracle said at the time of the suit that the complaint was politically motivated, based on false allegations, and without merit.

These articles discuss important issues that need to be addressed in the tech industry. However, I would also like to gently bring up some other points that I think should be considered in tandem.

  • The first is to clearly identify Asians (and multiracials1) as either belonging to a minority group or not. To its credit, the Wall Street Journal article states this when including Asians among the “large percentage of employees”, but I often see this fact elided in favor of just “white males.” This is a broader issue which also arises when debating about affirmative action. Out of curiosity, I opened up the Supreme Court’s opinions on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (PDF link) and did a search for the word “Asians”, which appears 66 times. Only four of those instances appear in the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy supporting race-conscious admission; the other 62 occurrences of “Asians” are in in Justice Alito’s dissent.

  • The second is to suggest that there are people who have good reason to believe that they would substantially contribute to workplace diversity, or who have had to overcome considerable life challenges (which I argue also increases work diversity), but who might otherwise not be considered a minority. For instance, suppose a recent refugee from Syria with some computer programming background applied to work at Google. If I were managing a hiring committee and I knew of the applicant’s background information, I would be inspired and would hold him to a slightly lower standard as other applicants, even if he happened to be white and male. There are other possibilities, and one could argue that poor whites or people who are disabled should qualify.

  • The third is to identify that there is a related problem in the tech industry about the pool of qualified employees to begin with. If the qualified applicants to tech jobs follow a certain distribution of the overall population, then the most likely outcome is that the people who get hired mirror that distribution. Thus, I would encourage emphasis on rephrasing the argument as follows: “tech companies have been under scrutiny for having a workforce which consists of too many white and Asian males with respect to the population distribution of qualified applicants” (emphasis mine). The words “qualified applicants” might be loaded, though. Tech companies often filter students based on school because that is an easy and accurate way to identify the top students, and in some schools (such as the one I attend, for instance), the proportion of under-represented minorities as traditionally defined has remained stagnant for decades.

I don’t want to sound insensitive to the need to make the tech workforce more diverse. Indeed, that’s the opposite of what I feel, and I think (though I can’t say for sure) that I would be more sensitive to the needs of under-represented minorities given my frequent experience of feeling like an outcast among my classmates and colleagues.2 I just hope that my alternative perspective is compatible with increasing diversity and can work alongside — rather than against — the prevailing view.

  1. See my earlier blog post about this

  2. I also take offense at the stereotype of the computer scientist as a “shy, nerdy, antisocial male” and hope that it gets eradicated. I invite the people espousing this stereotype to live in my shoes for a day.