The Impact of Product Decisions on Tech Diversity Initiatives

Tech product decisions result in the constant alienation of diverse users.

by Datrianna Meeks on December 13th, 2016

Google set the trend of releasing demographic diversity data roughly two years ago, and since then, many of the companies who pledged to change their demographics haven’t made any improvement. Tech companies use the same tactics and excuses over and over: the pipeline, ‘standards’. Less discussed is how tech product decisions result in the constant alienation of diverse users: these decisions make it obvious why marginalized people either aren’t eager to work at these companies, or don’t see a place for themselves there.

In the past year, three major tech companies, Facebook, Twitter, and Airbnb, have faced scrutiny for having features that allow for discrimination that manifests in many ways, including racism, transphobia, and sexism. We can all agree that tech has a diversity problem, but the problem is compounded when products are created without consideration for marginalized people. Diversity initiatives don’t stand a chance if companies have reputations for overlooking the very people they’re looking to hire.

Facebook’s Ethnic Segmentation

Aerial image of the Facebook campus: shaped in a triangle, featuring large compounds and huge parking lots.

Photo CC-BY Austin.

Facebook, no longer just the social network that allows you to keep up with your distant friends and family, has become a behemoth of a platform that revels in its advertising capabilities, even at the expense of its users. It recently came under fire for giving advertisers the ability to exclude certain groups through its “Ethnic Affinities” feature. The feature has been around for over a year now as a part of Facebook’s “multicultural advertising,” and it allows advertisers to exclude users of color from ad campaigns. When applied to housing and employment, “Ethnic Affinities” easily allow companies to violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Regardless of whether Facebook intended to make it easy for companies to discriminate or not, its inability to see how this could easily disadvantage a large segment of users is off-putting at least, and enough to make many people reconsider whether Facebook is a place that would welcome them as employees.

To add insult to injury, after the recent presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg denied the possibility of Facebook’s ‘fake news’ problem having influenced the election. In response to Zuckerberg’s comments, a group of Facebook employees who recognized the role the platform played in the election created a secret coalition to discuss the ‘fake news’ problem. Members of the group chose to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing their jobs. This narrative makes me, a queer, Black, woman, wonder if working at Facebook would mean biting my tongue about things I’m passionate about and having to spend my time working to undo the very things that make the platform unfair for people like me. Facebook’s “Ethnic Affinities” are alienating people of color and stigmatizing their company as an undesirable place to work.

If they could stop prioritizing virtual reality for a moment, they might realize what their actual reality is: their failure to create an inclusive work environment and inclusive products is keeping qualified, diverse candidates from wanting to work for them.

Hashtags and harassment

The Twitter logo with a lock icon next to it.

Photo CC-BY Esther Vargas.

140 characters or less is Twitter’s claim to fame, but the thing that keeps it in the media is the countless accounts of harassment on the platform: Twitter is a far cry from a safespace, especially for marginalized people.

This past June, Leslie Jones was the target of all-too-common online hate speech. Leslie’s role in the reboot of Ghostbusters brought out Twitter’s worst, and ultimately led Leslie to take a break from Twitter. After Leslie’s story went viral, Twitter promised to work on it’s harassment policy and recently launched new features to address the harassment issues. New product developments are indicative of progress, but if Leslie Jones, a successful comedian and actress, had to be harassed to the point of exiting the platform before action was taken, what do everyday, marginalized people have to do to be considered?

Black people represent twenty-five percent of Twitter users, double our share of the population, and yet we still seem to be overlooked when product decisions are made. This is in direct conflict with everything I know user-centric tech to be, so it’s hard for me to believe their lack of consideration is inadvertent. I’m left with a hard truth: the people creating one of my favorite products don’t care to understand how that product impacts people like me. Twitter has been the source of some amazing opportunities for me and I want it to succeed, but not if it continues to be a bystander in the dehumanization of marginalized people. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect people to want to work at a company that hasn’t bothered to consider them when making their product.

Airbnb, a “home away from home”… but for who?

AirBnB logo outside of one of their offices.

Public domain photo by Open Grid Scheduler.

Airbnb, the site that had everyone excited to ditch the luxe vibes of hotels for authenticity and culture, fell out of good graces back in May when #AirbnbWhileBlack was coined, after a Black woman took to Twitter to share how hosts on the platform discriminated against her by denying her bookings. Roughly one month later, another woman shared her story of having her booking request denied because she is trans.

Airbnb is actively working to address discrimination and bias on its platform, making it one of few companies who appears to be responding aggressively to their issues. Their sense of urgency is notable, but it doesn’t allow marginalized people to forget what they might be susceptible to when using the platform. I recently booked an AirBnB for an upcoming trip, and in the few hours it took for the host to respond, I found myself facing anxiety about whether my booking would be accepted, making sure to provide as many details about my professional life as possible in hopes of easing any apprehension the host might feel as a result of my identity. From the product’s inception, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community weren’t considered. If we had been, measures like requiring their users to make a “Community Commitment”, having a product team dedicated to fighting bias and promoting diversity, and implementing a “Diversity Rule” that “mandates that all candidate pools for senior level positions at Airbnb include women and candidates from underrepresented minority groups,” would have been in place from the onset.

Airbnb’s oversight makes me wonder how this might translate to the workplace. If no-one had the foresight to consider how bias would impact the experiences of users, how can we trust that teammates and leaders value our perspectives? Wrestling with this notion while handling the responsibilities of any role is overwhelming and a setup for low retention, which might explain why Airbnb has fewer women employees today than it did a year ago, and the number of employees from underrepresented minority groups has remained the same.

Diversity Issues at Scale

While these are just three examples, the problems and experiences they represent are echoed throughout the tech world. These companies set design, engineering, and innovation precedents and wear it as a badge of honor, but the precedents they set for how the industry treats marginalized people?

That goes unacknowledged.

These are not just product problems, they’re cultural problems. The fewer diverse candidates attracted to the companies that make the technology that shapes how we live, work, and interact, the more likely it is that these problems will persist. The pervasiveness of these issues has led to the creation of alternative products like Innclusive and Noirbnb, Airbnb alternatives by and for black people. Disadvantaged people are no strangers to responding to personal problems with innovation, but the reality is, venture funding for marginalized people, especially women, is hard to secure. This shouldn’t come as a shock, as many of the people who run major venture capital funds sit on the boards of the tech companies mentioned above; the lack of diversity applies to even the highest levels of the industry.

Working to combat bias and homogeneity while failing to incorporate diverse perspectives into the way products are built is a bandaid fix. Expecting people to work for you when you overlook them is asking them to fight for their humanity while they help strengthen your mission. Rather than placing value on people and the diverse perspectives they bring, value is placed on the single-digit representation of ‘diverse’ employees and marginal increases, at best, because of the industry focus on the sharing of diversity reports rather than the execution.

Let’s be clear, diversity reports aren’t shared in the spirit of improvement or transparency, it’s a self-deprecating way of affirming what many already know: tech companies are still white and male. Show us diversity in practice, not as a response to backlash that goes viral. Begin with diverse perspectives and inclusivity, and you’ll welcome people to your product, a sign of good faith that we are welcome at your company.