Tech, Affirmative Action and The Lochte Effect
Wage gaps and hiring discrimination persist despite the fact that most large corporations have affirmative action and equal opportunity policies.
I may be in the minority, but I believe every word that Ryan Lochte has uttered these last few weeks. Well, I believe that Ryan Lochte believes every word. While the facts may state that Ryan Lochte got drunk, vandalized a bathroom and fled the country, leaving his teammates in quite a precarious legal situation, I’m convinced that Ryan Lochte believes in his heart of hearts that he was indeed the victim.
As embarrassed as I am to admit this, I have seen portions of the now-infamous 2013 reality show “What Would Ryan Lochte Do,” which consisted mainly of Ryan Lochte waking up, doing absurd things, getting drunk and doing far more absurd things into the evening, all while sprinkling in a healthy dose of cultural appropriation. So, I was 0% surprised by Lochte’s Rio exploits. However, I was taken aback that despite offering apologies, Ryan Lochte has yet to unequivocally admit that he lied about the existence of a robbery and maintains the narrative that he simply “over embellished:” by and large, Ryan Lochte still somewhat believes that he is the victim despite the fact that all reason, data, and evidence points to the contrary.
Unfortunately, the Lochte phenomenon isn’t uncommon. I was recently reminded of this when a white male acquaintance flippantly mentioned “doors just open for people of color in the workplace. Employers are dying to hire people of color left and right.” The picture he painted sounded quite enticing, and as black woman in tech, I was earnestly looking forward to visiting the mystical fairyland he was describing. However, I was shocked to realize that that he was describing America! In true Lochte fashion, he not only maintained victimhood but in fact attested to the existence of systematic and pervasive widespread discrimination against white males in his industry, despite the fact that all credible research speaks to the contrary!
The myth that women and people of color are advantaged in the tech industry despite the fact that the data tells a story to the contrary is quite harmful. In particular, it masks the fact that there are very real problems faced by women and underrepresented minorities, such as hiring discrimination and wage discrepancies. The first step toward solving a problem is identifying that one exists. As long as we continue to deny the existence of a problem, discrimination against women and people of color will persist. Far worse, if one operates under the false assumption that white males as opposed to women and people of color are in fact discriminated against, one is indeed acknowledging the existence of a problem, albeit the wrong one. By doing so, one could begin to take corrective actions (even if subconsciously) to right the perceived injustices suffered by white males…. further exacerbating the systematic discrimination faced by women and people of color in hiring and wage practices.
Perhaps most damaging, the belief that women and people of color are advantaged in the technology industry provides the false sense that affirmative action policies are working. Wage gaps and hiring discrimination persist despite the fact that most large corporations have affirmative action and equal opportunity policies. Since institutionalized racism within the industry still exists, I would argue that these policies are ineffective as implemented; moreover, the belief that women and people of color have an unfair advantage in the technology industry could incentivize efforts to abolish any equal opportunity policies altogether.
Confronting Affirmative Action Myths
So, what exactly do we do about the Lochte effect in the technology field? That is, what do we do about fact that wage gaps and systematic discrimination exist that put women and people of color at a disadvantage, while there are those who will completely and totally deny these facts? What do we do to improve the fate of women and people of color in the face of both discrimination and erroneous narratives of Ryan Lochte proportions?
While there will inevitably be a contingency (such as the acquaintance discussed previously) who will remain obtuse despite being presented with facts and evidence, I believe the majority of technologists respond in a reasonable fashion when presented with facts. In particular, it is crucial that we educate the industry about the fact that compared to their white male counterparts, white women earn 78 cents to the dollar, African American women earn 63 cents to the dollar, American Indian and Alaskan Native women see 59 cents to the dollar, while Hispanic/Latina women earn 54 cents to the dollar. Black men earn 75 cents to the dollar, while Hispanic men earn 67 cents to the dollar. However, the wage gap isn’t the only phenomenon we need to call out: specifically, there are systemic issues that make it difficult for women and people of color to even *find* a job that will eventually underpay them. Studies show that a resume with a white sounding name is 50% more likely to receive a callback then a resume of similar quality with a black sounding name. Moreover, a white sounding name is as valuable on a resume as 8 years of work experience. The same phenomenon is observed when considering gender dynamics: that is, identical resumes with female sounding names are more likely to be deemed less qualified, and more likely to be recommended for a lower salary grade. Indeed, in my own life I have experienced the phenomenon of presenting identical job application, and only getting a call for an interview when I applied as a white person.
I believe the industry agrees that women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields, but it is often assumed that this is driven solely by lack of women and minorities in STEM pipelines. We often gloss over the very real discrimination that exists within the industry. One simple way to combat this is to educate the industry by bringing the data to the forefront, whether this be at tech conferences, tech publications, public service announcements, or other means of dissemination. Starting even earlier, it’s become more and more common for ethics courses to be required within Engineering programs; wage and hiring discrimination and issues regarding diversity should be included in such curriculum. Finally, companies that boast equal opportunity policies should educate hiring managers as to data regarding discrimination within the corporation and the industry at large. Some companies are beginning to do this: in particular, Apple recently adjusted wages such that women and people of color are now earning the same wage as their white male counterparts with similar job function and performance. Companies should be evaluating their data, determining where discrepancies exist, and making adjustments accordingly.
Most of us understand that the portrayal of women and people of color in technology fields in the media affects future participation of women and people of color in STEM fields. But fewer consider that media affects how we perceive and create myths about affirmative action as well.
Those that blame affirmative action for their failures likely have a hard time picturing women and people of color as qualified for particular positions. The media largely paints the picture that women and people of color are incompetent in the field of technology, and that they don’t deserve a seat at the table. Lack of representation of technically proficient people of color in the media can affect pipelines (lack of role models for young aspiring STEM practitioners), but it can also perpetuate the myth that women and people of color in the technology industry have an unfair advantage: if media portrays women and people of color as incapable, it follows that women and people of color in tech are obtaining opportunities that they aren’t qualified for as a result of unfair advantages. If we had to paint the media with a broad brush, it shows us that African Americans can be gangsters, slaves, athletes, angry/sassy, and that women can essentially be objects. Why don’t we see women and people of color portrayed as Scientists and Engineers in the media? We need to educate the masses as to the contribution of women and people of color to technology. In particular, I’m absolutely besides myself in excitement about the upcoming film “Hidden Figures” that will highlight the contributions of African American female NASA mathematicians. We need more films like this.
There is a discrepancy between the way the experiences of women and people of color within technology are perceived, and what the reality (and data) demonstrates. In particular, these false narratives can be harmful, distracting us from the problems at hand. However, I believe there is hope. By educating the industry at all levels (students in Engineering programs, the industry at large via press and conferences talks, hiring managers within corporations) and collecting and disseminating key data, as well as improving media representation of marginalized people in STEM, we can begin to dispel misconceptions and make some real traction in terms of solving the problems at hand.