The Techies Project And Why Unpaid Labor for Diversity in Tech Needs to Stop

by Shanley Kane on April 6th, 2016

This week, the Techies Project — featuring the photos and stories of underrepresented technologists in Silicon Valley — launched to widespread acclaim. Funded by Medium and Facebook, and led by photographer Helena Price, developer Martha Schumann and designer Alonzo Felix, the site features over 100 people, with plans to roll out many more throughout the year.

The overwhelmingly positive reception to the project indicates a technology community hungry for better representation and visibility — and that’s important. There have also been some meaningful critiques, which we should also pay attention to — Maddy Myers has a great piece here, and Riley H. shared some salient thoughts on the project’s Silicon Valley-centrism and its implications. To these, I would add another point of concern:

None of the people featured in the project were paid for the time, energy, expertise, stories and insight they contributed to it.

Unpaid/underpaid labor by marginalized people is RIFE in technology — the Techies Project is just a single (if highly visible) example among hundreds. Particularly, the hard and often draining work that goes into diversity in tech — which typically includes working towards better representation/visibility in a number of ways, sharing personal stories, contributing emotional labor, narrating and contextualizing lived experiences, offering critique, forming connections and building community — is disproportionately done by underrepresented people in the field… for free. This is especially problematic because:

It contributes to an industry-wide pattern of devaluing, underpaying and underfunding work done by underrepresented groups in tech.

Women programmers make but 72% of what male programmers do – one of the largest professional wage gaps. Asian American women are vastly under-promoted compared to their representation in tech, creating major differences in earning potential over time; despite being the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America, Black women receive approximately 0% of venture funding. These are only a few of the data points on the profound financial inequalities in tech. In fact, so much ink has been shed on this topic that it boggles the mind that we still see project after project, though supposedly focused on advancing marginalized people, still refusing to PAY THEM. This pattern upholds the belief system that hey, we just don’t need to pay marginalized people fair wages (or hell, any wages) for their work. And that is directly related to the ongoing devaluation, underpayment, underfunding and non-payment of marginalized people in tech, with real financial consequences across the field.  

Too often, this free labor goes directly to uphold the image and reputation of the same fucking companies that perpetuate inequality.

And this is no exception. Techies Project is funded by some extremely large and rich corporations. There’s Facebook — worth over $300 billion, with a tech team that’s 84% male, 94% white and Asian, and less than 1% Black; and with a long history of oppressive and dangerous policies. Then there’s Medium — which has raised over $82 million, is led by white-male billionaire Ev Williams, and hasn’t even bothered to release its own diversity data (I think we can all speculate on why, but as a data point, the company Williams previously founded, Twitter, is just as white and male as they come… and that hasn’t changed in a decade and isn’t changing now.) In fact, Techies Project will be posting one story a day on Medium – helping to drive significant amounts of traffic, visibility and reputation-enhancing kudos (in sum, $$) to this white-male owned and funded platform – while none of the people who the project is ABOUT and FOR will get money. Hmmm. Truly, Techies Project is actively helping these companies – being associated with this project deflect criticism of systemic discrimination, makes them look far more progressive and inclusive than they actually are, and even assists in functions like branding, recruiting and hiring. This is part of a well-documented trend of tech companies commoditizing diversity in tech for their own benefit…  but it’s also a labor issue when built entirely on unpaid work benefiting primarily white male-dominated companies.

It means many marginalized technologists just won’t be represented.

The most marginalized groups in tech are exactly the ones who CANNOT afford to provide the free labor that goes into building diversity in tech projects. This necessarily excludes some of the most important, relevant and undervalued voices in the diversity in tech conversation: people who work in massively underpaid roles in tech, such as support staff; youth suffering from economic violence; people experiencing homelessness and poverty; career-changers confronting debt, unemployment and the high cost of learning to code; people who can’t find tech employment due to discrimination, particularly transmisogyny and ableism; people who have been fired and/or chased out of their jobs by hostile and abusive work environments; and so many more. If our diversity in tech efforts are completely closed to these groups because we won’t pay them — or, are open to them only when we blatantly exploit their free labor — those efforts will be failures, no matter how well-intentioned.  

And… it keeps diversity in tech work from being sustainable.

Paying marginalized people for diversity in tech work contributes to the viability, strength, sustainability and success of the movement overall. In my specific experiences paying underrepresented people for their writing on tech and culture, this effect is super clear: Many people use the money to pay for rent, food and medical care which allows them to continue participating in tech, and oftentimes in their own influential and essential activism. Many use the money to fund their own projects around diversity, representation and culture change in tech, or contribute to other people’s projects, resulting in an overall enriching and financing of the ecosystem. Many people who are more financially privileged contribute it to other writers, or to other diversity in tech initiatives. If each contributor to the Techies Project had been paid just $100, a total of $10,000 would have been shifted from the project’s corporate backers directly to marginalized workers in tech, who would have done important things or even great things with it.

And most importantly, paying marginalized people means supporting the EXPECTATION that labor by marginalized people MUST be paid for: this broader culture change would mean the shift in literally billions of dollars in resources over time. When projects refuse to pay marginalized people for their work, the entire ecosystem — already constantly struggling for funding — suffers.

These are just a few, among many reasons, that we need to start paying for diversity in tech work today. Starting with corporate-backed, highly-visible initiatives like Techies Project.

Before you start with me on Twitter:

This post SHOULD NOT be used as a criticism of participants in the project. Many of them are willing and able to do unpaid community work; while commendable, we should still interrogate the larger problems of a movement built around unpaid work — and who it leaves out, including people who are not “successful” by Silicon Valley standards but are no less worthy of visibility, representation and celebration in our field.

If you are still tempted to respond because you are a participant, or you are a supporter, friend or fan of a participant, and this post has you feeling defensive, consider that I am literally advocating for participants to be paid.

That is not an attack. That is support and solidarity.

This post also SHOULD NOT be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of the Techies Project. (As a side note, it should also not be used as an excuse to come down on unaffiliated projects without corporate backing, mainstream support or visibility for not paying or underpaying participants; critiquing Techies Project is fair because it has access to significant corporate funding, and exists along multiple axes of privilege. NUANCE!!!) Rather, I would call on the Techies Project to use the opportunity of their success to raise more money to pay future participants. (Ideally, they stop taking money from white-male billionaire-backed companies that are actively perpetuating the problems the project claims to address, but I guess I won’t quibble.) Of course, there are also other points Techies Project should consider — such as the limitations of awareness-based advocacy, the industry around exploitation of personal stories, and other critiques raised by the community — but paying would be a huge step forward.  

More importantly, however, I hope this can open a broader discussion on how and why the labor marginalized people in tech do goes unpaid – and why that needs to stop, especially when it comes to diversity in tech.