A #MinorityImmersion Solution to Disrupt #TechDisparities

By Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D.

Background

My experience with diversity activities is extensive in the academic arena especially in the STEM disciplines. My non-profit works with doctorate trainees helping them advance in their careers while simultaneously connecting this unique talent pool to diversity stakeholders who encourage search committees to expand faculty candidate pools.

I’ve recently become interested in the “tech” sector to understand its diversity demographics as well as intiatives that address any disparities. In 2011, while creating the Diversity Bloggers page, I identified online a person of color, Adria Richards, and her blog, But You’re A Girl (2008 - 2013). Sadly her treatment after the 2013 PyCon conference exemplifies the unfavorable climate for underrepresented minorities in the tech industry.

Unfortunately this isn’t my first brush with sexism in the computer industry. While a student in the early 1990’s and a fan of the Apple Macintosh, I religiously followed my U.S. MacUser subscription for the latest news and tips. As a feminist, I was shocked upon receiving an issue with a blatantly sexist cover image of a woman’s lipstick-coated lips parted for her suggestive tongue. That print issue was preceded by another MacUser cover showing a female model in a bathing suit floating in a pool while cradling a Mac portable on her torso. I wrote a published letter to the editor with the brief but pointed message to “Stop! stop! stop! this trend of sexist magazine covers! MacUser is selling computers — not beer or sports” (footnote a). MacUser stuck with product images for future covers and around 10 years later ceased publication.

While I have had no formal training in computation since college (PL/I anyone?) and have not pursued a tech career, I do maintain a small bioinformatics research program where I have published with a talented student programmer Aaron Abajian.

Proposed Solution

The lengthy background introduction explains my experience with diversity interventions and a brief perspective on the tech industry. I was motivated to write this editorial by the recent TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon and the conference organizer’s apology for sexist demo presentations. A follow-up TechCrunch blog post describes some initial plans to make their conference more inclusive. My investigation of tech conference diversity interventions has been limited to blog posts such as those by Ashe Dryden. In addition there are college-level computer science student “pipeline” initiatives in academia as curated on the Stakeholders page such as the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference.

In my opinion, activities such as a “diversity” reviewer for hackathon submissions are interesting ideas; but ultimately have limitations (to be explained in a future update to this post). Instead, to disrupt disparities that exist in tech conferences, it is necessary to restructure the community itself formed during these ephemeral events. Specifically all attendees need to be sensitized to the concerns and values of underrepresented people not included in the power dynamic of this industry, i.e. women, people of color, etc. I propose the following two solutions especially for those conferences that have had violations of reasonably accepted anti-harassment policies:

That’s it. These two simple guidelines will embed diversity awareness throughout the hackathon by an immersion process. Of course describing the guideline is much easier that implementing the process; but, “disruption” is supposed to shock the status quo. Conference organizers can partner with local minority communities such as public schools, shelters, elder care facilities, etc as an outreach activity to identify pools of diversity “subject matter experts” to be invited to join hackathon teams. Partnering specifically with tech diversity initiatives for students (Table) or working adults (see Resources page Entrepreneurship Opportunities) can create synergies that maximize the outcomes of each separate activity.

The assumption is that teams will not consider or discuss hackathon projects that would be offensive to a grandparent, black child, teenage woman, or other such community member. The introduction by the diversity team member provides credibility that the deliverable has been vetted. It’s not necessary that the diversity team member deliver the entire pitch. Of course, to be competitive, there’s an incentive for white male team members to make apps, programs, etc that cater to underserved communities so that the diversity team member is genuinely excited to make the demo introduction. This benefit will mimic the outcomes of Code for America-like public service projects but on a larger scale by potentially involving all hackathon events.

Table: Representative Student Software Coding Interventions

Future

On Saturday September 21, I am leading a panel on Student Software Coding Experiences for Future Latino Entrepreneurs at the annual conference of Latinos in Tech Innovation & Social Media (#LATISM13). I also recently had a panel proposal accepted for the 2014 Tapia Conference on the topic of “New Diversity Interventions for the Tech Workforce & Entrepreneurs”. These sessions catalyze networking between tech diversity organizations. However, such community building should also be occurring at the “majority” tech conferences so that a critical mass of #MinorityImmersion can disrupt #TechDisparities.

Finally, I note the irony of writing this editorial late Friday night while I’m supposed to be participating in my own first experience with a coding competition at the LATISM conference’s first hackathon. I’m dipping my toe back in the tech world so that I can be a part of the solution. Hmm, did I just hack this event and unknowingly create LATISM’s first blogathon?

Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. is the Founder and Editor of MinorityPostdoc.org. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

The citation for this article is:
A.I. Roca (2013) A #MinorityImmersion Solution to Disrupt #TechDisparities.
DiverseScholar 4:4

Footnote
a) I would be very appreciative of any reader with a U.S. MacWorld back-issues collection with original copies of these covers and letter to the editor.


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Orginally published 20-Sep-2013,
Last update 31-Jul-2014