Diversity and Companies-As-Systems

Diversity in tech is not only about ending technology empires that employ almost all white men, but about ending the ecosystems around tech companies that benefit primarily white males through a constellation of seemingly “secondary” effects in a far vaster net.

by Shanley Kane on September 2nd, 2015

Most conversations on diversity in tech revolve around the staff of technology companies: hiring, demographics, representation in leadership, pay inequality, and other issues within the full-time employee base. While necessary, this lens often ignores that tech companies are enmeshed in rich local and global networks, and produce financial and human impact far beyond the lives of their full-time workers.

Consider that tech companies themselves are often the center of entire micro or even macro economies. Even a relatively small startup may rely on dozens of outsourced contracting companies and dozens or hundreds of their workers; utilize food and catering services; use off-site venues for conferences, meet-ups, summits and other events; hire interior architects and designers for their offices; purchase and disseminate art; employ legal, accounting and bookkeeping services; and purchase anywhere between hundreds of thousands to tens of millions in merchandise and other goods. Larger tech companies may use ten of thousands of outsourced contract workers, have billions of dollars in purchasing influence, and can devastate and gentrify entire cities. Their sphere of influence – as economic, social and cultural forces – extends far beyond the relatively narrow category of full time workers employed by the company.

A bright, vibrant colony of anemones under the sea.

Photo CC-BY Justin Casp, filtered.

At Model View Culture, thinking about our company as a more holistic system has been a core tenant from the start, particularly as we have a very small non-contract staff. Still, it’s continually surprising to evaluate and re-evaluate where we are succeeding in implementing our values as part of a larger system, and where we still need to improve. One thing we’re proud of is that our preference to work with local, woman-owned and small/independent businesses means that we are contributing a sizeable sum of our revenue to the local woman-run economy. Our author payments, which comprise a large bulk of our spending, all goes directly to marginalized authors, writers and technologists. And when we launched our new website last year, we explicitly wanted to work with a team with a woman in a technical leadership role. Yet as we go, there’s always more to do — it’s a constant process of decision-making and acknowledgement of the impact of our business and where it touches the lives and livelihoods of others… however small we may be.

Thinking about the way tech companies act as powerful parts of larger ecosystems, I put together a partial list of some ways that these ecosystems work and how we can better leverage and influence them to create positive change in the industry, and the workers and communities around us, which make it possible for us to do the work we do.

Contracted Services

Many internal teams work directly with outsourced professional agencies focused on the technology vertical, from tech PR to marketing to website and design. How can tech companies use their decision-making powers and influence to prioritize working with diverse teams and firms owned by marginalized people? Some ideas: make sure that you are bringing in firms owned by marginalized people to pitch your company, and request that professional service teams assigned to you have diverse representation and leadership.

It’s also imperative to note that many tech companies large and small rely on exterior contracting firms whose workers provide essential services including janitorial, maintenance, transportation and more, services that tech companies absolutely need to succeed. However, these workers are typically underpaid, don’t receive commensurate benefits, and are commonly viciously thwarted in attempts to organize or unionize for better working conditions. The most high-profile recent example is the heroic efforts of the We Work Here Too movement, yet following efforts to organize and advocate for fair pay and benefits, Gothamist reported just last week that “roughly 90% of the subcontracted workforce who cleaned the New York offices of WeWork, the co-working startup recently valued at $10 billion, have been laid off amid allegations that the company is anti-union and discriminates against immigrants.”

Also recently, a federal complaint was lodged against Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation for interfering with drivers’ attempts to unionize. Bauer’s operates employee shuttles for large tech companies including Twitter, Salesforce and Yelp. According to Mother Jones: “Bauer’s drivers have been increasingly demanding to earn a living wage and form a union. After their efforts stepped up this spring, the company responded with a number of ‘unfair labor practices’ according to the NRLB complaint. The agency’s complaint is based on an independent investigation of allegations filed in March by the Teamsters, which has been trying organize Bauer’s workers.”

Tech companies have historically exploited contract labor instead of using their clout and influence to advocate for better working conditions and pay or better yet, employing these professionals as full time workers with the same benefits — health care, competitive pay and stock options — that so many tech workers enjoy. This needs to change, and must be a #1 priority as we look at diversity in tech through a systems perspective.


Sometimes design work may seem too opaque and esoteric for the diversity in tech conversation, in that the creator can’t always be discerned immediately from the work. But tech companies make thousands of aesthetic decisions all the time: these design, UI, UX, artistic and photographic decisions impact an entire economy of artists and creators: from the photographers we feature on our sites to the creators of artwork that adorns our offices.

At Model View Culture, we’ve been thinking more and more about the images we use on the site to accompany articles, and actively working to use more photography, art and depictions of diverse groups of people by diverse artists and photographers. This has really demonstrated the difficulties and limitations of many existing stock, creative commons and photo sharing sites, which tend to be white male-dominated, both in the creators and the subjects. For this reason, we’re particularly excited about the launch of Black Stock Images. They have a brilliant tag-line: “Content is important. So are the images you use to represent it.” Also, #WOCinTech will be hosting a stock photo shoot featuring women of color who work in tech soon, and we can’t wait to see the results and use some of their images in our articles!

When I started working on MVC, thinking about diverse representation in our photography, imagery and other visual areas was frankly sometime I wasn’t thinking much about. We’ve even received some excellent feedback about how we should consider using more typefaces created by women! Everything from the font faces you use to the photographers of the stock images you use matters.

Customers and User Base

We say so much about ourselves, our values and our customers/users in the choices we make about who and what to feature, and how they are featured. These choices have tangible impacts on the world outside the walls of our companies. For example, many people have noted that specifically Black creators don’t receive equal visibility and support on social sites, crowdfunding sites, media platforms and others. How can you support diverse representation through the choices you make about what users and creators to feature? If you have a consumer-focused site, particularly one focused on user-generated content, how can you make sure to actively promote and protect marginalized users on your site? This includes everything from implementing and enforcing effective anti-harassment policies, to making sure that marginalized creators are being featured in highlight posts, “featured” sections, search results, etc.  Even enterprises companies can choose to feature a diverse group of professionals from their customer and partner base in talks, quotes in press releases, conference appearances, etc.


Events are an essential part of how the tech community connects and communicates. Through small events such as meetups, to major conferences and satellite events, we pour an enormous amount of time and money into events. In addition to making sure that our events are inclusive, accessible, have diverse speakers and are welcoming, we should also be thinking about things like the venues and entertainment we pick. In my experience, local and smaller businesses often have event packages or can customize them, instead of always hosting team events at the office or at chain restaurants, hotel conglomerates, etc. Also, what about ordering from local restaurants, not catering from large chains?

Additionally, there is a huge push in the tech community to move the center of our events from alcohol to other areas. Why not work more closely with local artists, performers, singers, bands, etc. to help support indie work in local communities?


A Christmas-tree worm on brain coral.

Photo CC-BY U.S. Geological Survey, filtered.

This article would be deeply remiss without mentioning one of the primary effects that technology has the lives of marginalized people: gentrification. In the Bay Area, tech workers can use tools from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to rent more responsibly and to learn more about how their choices and companies are impacting the area. And, read this on Tech Workers and the Eviction Crisis, from Erin McElroy and Kelsey Gilmore-Innis:

We implore tech workers to utilize the tools that we create to make conscious efforts to mitigate the impact that tech corporations are having on San Francisco’s multiplicitous communities, especially those structurally oppressed. That can mean making conscious decisions not to move into homes from which people have been evicted. That can also mean frequenting local businesses and public infrastructure instead of solely relying on company perks. Furthermore, we appeal to tech workers to organize with us, whether through our mapping and data visualization work, or through the work of other housing organizations and movements throughout the city.

There are numerous skills that tech workers can bring to our efforts, and many tech workers are already involved in activism and grassroots projects like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project…

We ask that tech workers divest from major tech corporations, economically and politically, and instead work with smaller companies and open sources technologies. However, tech workers employed by large corporations can also organize from within their companies, putting pressure on higher-ups to mitigate the impact that their companies are having…

While much of the conversation about tech gentrification focuses on the Bay Area, it is a pattern we see with growing tech economies around the country and world, and must be a central concern of the movement for social justice in technology.

A bright red urchin lodged in coral and rocks.

Photo CC-BY Amanda Pollock/USFWS, filtered.

Diversity in tech remains singularly focused on representation within our full-time staff, without considering issues like decisions about who we work with, the contract companies we employ, the seemingly subtle choices we make in design, the places we hold events and entertainment options we provide, and even who is allowed to be a full-time worker (and thus have access to all of the benefits and privileges of such). This promotes a very limited vision of how tech companies actually impact the world, people and economies around us, adjacent but tied to what we typically conceive of as “the company”. In reality, the choices we are making outside of who comprises our full-time staff have a massive impact, including the flow of billions of dollars in capital, the recipient and beneficiaries of large contracts, the viability of local businesses and communities, the representation of diverse artists, writers and creators, and so much more.

The implications of thinking more holistically about diversity in tech are enormous. Diversity in tech is not only about ending technology empires that employ almost all white men, but about ending the ecosystems around tech companies that benefit primarily white males through a constellation of seemingly “secondary” effects in a far vaster net. We need to stop envisioning the movement for diversity in tech as something that is about full-time tech employees only, but rather about a much larger system, touching so much more.