How Suge Knight is Responsible For the Wage Gap: A Perspective on Race, Gender and Technology
The gap between my experience as a black woman in tech, and what others perceive of that experience.
As humans, the gap between our individual perceptions is often a canyon of seemingly infinite width. Whether it be the famed dress-gate that has taken social media by storm (is it blue/black/gold/white? I hope we can all at least see that the dress is hideous), or the band Nickelback (despite their 50 million in record sales, they may in fact be the most egregious assault to eardrums since Roseanne Barr’s national anthem performance), perception can be a tricky animal. Since I already hate myself for resorting to cringe-worthy analogies, I suppose I should introduce a gap in perception that is a bit more personal to me: the gap between my experience as a black woman in technology, and what others perceive of that experience.
During my PhD program, I was sitting in the undergraduate computer lab when I overheard a group of Caucasian males talking: “My GPA kindof sucks, but if I were a disabled black woman, I would have like a million job offers and I’d be making so much money.”
I was shocked. I had never experienced this gravy train they spoke of! Was there supposed to be a red carpet rolled out for me, at the end of which Ed McMahon hands me a giant check and releases thousands of balloons while Oprah yells “You get a job”, “You get job” and “You get a job”? How had I missed this? Did the patron saint of affirmative action skip over me because of my love for the Beatles and Starbucks Chai Lattes? Did someone pull my black card?
I wanted to speak up and tell this ignorant group of strangers that they were horribly mistaken as to the advantages offered to the young, black and disabled (even if companies set affirmative action policies, it is up to hiring managers, who are often white males, to uphold, but I digress), but I knew it would be a waste of breath. Instead, I decided that I would collect some empirical evidence to negate their thesis after all. I realized that the only way I could collect the required evidence was by becoming white, so white I became.
Full disclosure, I did not actually become white a la Michael Jackson. That route is so very antiquated. We now have the technology to posthumously bring Tupac to the stage of Coachella; there is no reason not to leverage technology to change one’s race. I decided to forgo the bleaching creams and catfish my way into the upper echelons of Caucasian society. I simply reviewed my inbox for rejected job applications to positions I was particularly qualified for, and reapplied with an identical resume; the only thing I altered about my application was my race. Only in America, the land of opportunity can you become whiter than Taylor Swift and Carlton Banks combined with the simple click of a radio button. Lo and behold, within 48 hours I was offered interviews for the very same positions my qualifications were so recently deemed insufficient for.
I was so proud of my little social experiment that I called my father right away so that he could marvel with me at my brilliance. Instead of granting me the honorary doctorate in psychology that I was expecting, my father stated rather matter-of-factly “You do know that you should never put your race on a job application.” He relayed a few personal anecdotes about his former job searches. He never checked the race box, and would soar through phone interviews, just knowing that he had the job in the bag. Then, all of the sudden during the final in-person interview, it was discovered that he wasn’t a good match. His fortune changed when a final round of in-person interviews was cancelled due to extenuating circumstances, and he was able to get the job on the merits of his qualifications and his oh-so-soothing phone voice (If Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones had a love child, their voice would resemble my father’s).
Here I was thinking that I had gathered evidence for some ground-breaking study that would debunk the white guys in the computer lab, when in reality I had simply corrected a rookie mistake — checking the African American box — that had hampered my employment search all along.
Lies of Omission
After speaking with my father, I realized that based on my own experiences I should have known better. I recall a time as an undergraduate in which I walked by the booth of a large food conglomerate while perusing the career fair at the National Society of Black Engineer’s annual convention. I attempted to avoid eye contact, but the African American woman working the booth summoned me. I explained to her that I had already applied via my own campus career fair, and the recruiting team had determined that my qualifications didn’t match the needs of the internship. She was astonished that my nearly-perfect GPA deemed me unqualified.
The woman rectified the situation, and I was offered an on-site interview with the very same Aryan team (I don’t say this in jest, I kid you not, the entire team literally had blonde hair and blue eyes) that had previously rejected me. In the end, they hired a few blonde-haired blue-eyed classmates of mine instead of me (I’m sure the continuation of the Aryan situation is purely coincidental), but this situation certainly speaks to the need for organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) that can provide opportunities for those who fall through the cracks. I couldn’t tell the group of white guys in the computer lab what it would be like to be a black female with a crappy GPA, but I can tell them that being black with a good GPA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The brotastic dudes in the computer lab that wished to be black female and disabled weren’t the first to vocalize misconceptions about my alleged advantages. I recall a time in which the attack was far more personal and specific. During a trip to the dentist to get her wisdom teeth pulled, my mother happened upon an article in the Indianapolis Monthly Magazine in which the editor of my high school newspaper was interviewed (let’s call her Becky). Becky cited affirmative action as a reason for many students not getting into their first choice schools. Yes, I got into Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and MIT, but I was one of the valedictorians (as far as I know I am the only black valedictorian to hail from Carmel High School since its inception in 1887). I literally had the best grades of anyone in the school, so the implication that I didn’t earn my spot or that I took someone else’s spot was absurd (all the other valedictorians got into their choice schools, but I digress). She also stated in the interview that the biggest scandal of the year was that one of the valedictorians only had one honors class and that other students felt their efforts in honors classes weren’t properly weighted.
When she spoke of affirmative action, I figured she was talking about me, but when she brought up the valedictorian thing, I knew for sure. To this day, I’m not even sure how she got hold of my school records, but Becky failed to mention that in addition to my one honors class, I earned college credit for 5 AP classes, which I don’t think is too shabby. I honestly didn’t find the honors courses in English and History to be beneficial, and I instead focused on taking AP Math, Science, and Computer Science courses because of the college credit, which later allowed me to earn an undergraduate Chemical Engineering Degree in three years. Until my mother went to the dentist that fateful day, I had no idea that I was the biggest scandal of 2005, but at any rate I declined Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and MIT as a result of the hefty price tag, so technically my spot was left vacant for whoever I allegedly screwed over with my 4.0, high SAT scores, and stack of AP classes (oh yeah, and that one lowly honors class).
While it does seem that Becky intentionally uttered misleading statements by omitting my AP courses, it is my duty to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that like the group of white men in the computer lab, she honestly believed every word she uttered. Like I said, perception is a strange animal. (P.S. If there really were a Becky in my graduating class, which is indeed likely as there were nearly 1000 students in my class, I would like to apologize for using your name to protect the guilty. Feel free to blame Sisqo. In other news, whatever happened to Sisqo???).
For those of you that have never heard of intersectionality and are now wishing to officially Patricia Arquette me, don’t worry; I have an anecdote to appease you. For you see, I have discovered conclusively what the glass ceiling is. It isn’t an abstract construct as I originally thought. It is literally two very tall, very large bouncers (one that was the spitting image of Suge Knight) barring women from the campus career fair. Let me explain.
Barriers to Entry
Unlike the nameless food conglomerate career fair fiasco I described previously, the career fair I will now describe hails from my tenure as a graduate student. As I prepared for my first (and only, to be perfectly honest) career fair as a graduate student, I scourged the career website for all the important details: when, where, and of course the dress code. I was going to wear business professional either way (pencil skirt, white shirt, matching blazer, professional pumps of moderate height), but I wanted to ensure there weren’t any specific instructions that I shouldn’t miss. As I scrolled through the instructions, I happened upon something rather strange: The career fair website indicated that spike heel shoes were prohibited. I was confident that my professional pumps of moderate height were in no way spike heels, but at any rate something about those instructions didn’t feel quite right. Still, I decided to put the thought out of my mind with the intention of pondering the gender politics behind their instructions after the career fair.
After grabbing my badge and information packet, I confidently approached the stairs leading to the career fair entrance. However, at the third or fourth stair, I was stopped by the Suge Knight clone I mentioned previously. “Sorry ma’am, but no high heeled shoes are allowed in the career fair”. I explained to the bouncers that the website clearly indicated that spike heels were not allowed, and I was wearing professional pumps of moderate height. The bouncer directed me toward the career fair organizer’s table to further plead my case. As I waited for someone to assist me, the not-so-proverbial glass ceiling formerly known as Suge Knight was turning women away in droves (ok, not droves, after all, the female population at Georgia Tech is only 25-30% of the student body).
After a lengthy wait, a woman stepped forward to explain that the website indicated that high heels were banned and that I should have checked the website before I attended. I called BS (politely of course and did not in fact use any choice words) and explained that I checked the website meticulously and was aware that spike heels were banned, not professional heels of moderate height such as the shoes I was wearing. While we were speaking, I noticed that a group of women clad in eight-inch platform shoes gained admission into the career fair. When I inquired as to that decision, the career fair organizer mentioned that the intention was to preserve the tarp that was covering the gym floor, so all rubber-soled shoes would be allowed. So in essence, what the career fair committee announced was that no spike heels were allowed, when what they intended to announce was that no high-heeled shoes would be allowed (I’m not really okay with this, because I personally feel most confident and professional in heels, and confidence definitely affects the outcome here). But really what they should have announced is that rubber soles were required.
At any rate, I was astonished that the career fair committee would allow their failure to communicate (where is Captain from Cool Hand Luke when you need him??) to prevent women from gaining the opportunity to find employment. We can now add the wage gap to the lengthy list of indiscretions inflicted upon us by Suge Knight (Just kidding, I don’t at all blame the bouncers, they were kind, professional, and thou shall not shoot the messenger).
Nevertheless, I resolved not to leave defeated. Engineers are trained to solve problems, and I was going to come up with a solution. Perhaps I was in the midst of a technical interview and didn’t know it? I asked around until I procured the necessary supplies: scissors and industrial double-sided tape. In case you were wondering, I was not about to commit a murder (I would need bleach and rubber gloves for that, duh). I simply removed a patch of rubber from the bottom of my flats, and attached it to my professional pumps of moderate height. Voila. I had rubber-soled shoes.
When I presented my solution to the career fair organizer, I expected that she would push a red button to cue the balloon release and the appearance of Ed McMahon with a giant check, and Oprah would appear, followed by a ticker tape parade and 21-gun salute. Instead, she rather anticlimactically congratulated me for my clever solution and permitted me to enter the career fair. Suge Knight was a bit more enthusiastic when I approached the stairs; it was obvious that he felt terrible that his security services had been contracted for the sole purpose of denying women admission to the career fair.
Perception Vs. Reality
Perception: Women in technology are purple unicorns that have a plethora of advantages.
Reality: They don’t let us in the career fair, and they establish policies without us in mind. In the words of James Brown… “This is a man’s career fair”
Perception: Affirmative action is the gravy train that leads to a plethora of job offers with the snap of a finger.
Reality: Checking the African American box on a job application is a rookie mistake. While I doubt that many hiring managers intentionally penalize minorities, unconscious biases do exist (we all have them).
Yep, perception is a strange animal. While I’ve recounted some not-so-great experiences here, I’ve been blessed to have so many amazing opportunities that far outweigh the challenges. I’m even thankful for the closed doors (with the exception of the career-fair shoe situation, that just wasn’t helpful at all) because they opened up doors for the many welcoming and inclusive environments I’ve had the privilege of being part of. I’m also thankful for the harsh and unfair criticism (cough cough… Becky) that has only motivated me to work harder and strive to pave a better path for those that follow in my footsteps.
Also, the dress is blue/gold, and Nickelback is a terrible band.