The Newest Frontier

Tech, the latest bastion of structural and economic White supremacy.

by Lesli-Ann Lewis on June 9th, 2014

There’s a persistent lie that there is a new industry of equality in the West.

There’s a belief that in this industry, there are new playing fields, even ones, where ingenuity, inventiveness and good ole gumption result in success for anyone worthy.

That industry is tech.

Characterized by its genesis in basements and garages, tech is seen as proof of American meritocracy, the antithesis to corporate culture and passed-down access. As the tech industry has grown and expanded to engulf more than suburban garages, it’s kept its image as an almost revolutionary space, a haven for outsiders and the traditionally marginalized, who now need only their brilliance to make it.

Much of tech’s revenue depends on that hopeful image. Yet as Silicon Valley has expanded its borders, its landscape has remained monochromatic, masculine and insular. The faces that dominate the public image of tech — Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates — are reflective of the reality of tech’s make up: white men from middle class backgrounds.

An aerial photo of the Google Campus, a sprawling, modern campus with parks full of green trees among modern-looking white and blue-roofed office complexes.

Google Campus. CC-BY Austin McKinley, filtered.

This reality has been further substantiated by the disclosure of diversity data across Google’s tech workforce. New reports and whistleblowers prove it is time we challenge the image of tech as a revolutionary or different kind of industry: it’s simply the newest frontier for the old boys club.

“You Have to Be Liked”

The leaky pipeline is just part of the problem. The other problem is the environment itself.

A former Marine and information security engineer wanted to talk about his experience facing racism in tech, but felt the only way he could do so without losing his job and future opportunities was to use a pseudonym, Sincere.

“You have to be liked. You can have the most basic set of skills but if someone in a position to hire or promote you likes you, then you’re in… These guys who are only hiring their friends or the guys they went to schools with are in their twenties and thirties, but this is how the ol’ boys club starts. It’s what their fathers did, only hiring people like them.”

The practice seems innocuous. Building a cohesive team is important, but the need to be liked first makes people afraid to speak out and later complicit, if not active participants in creating an unwelcoming atmosphere. Being liked is fundamental to getting in the door and advancing.

It’s also used to cover up workplace abuse, discriminatory hiring practices and harassment. It’s been discussed at length how tech’s practice of “cultural fit” hiring and firing discriminates against women, but Sincere found it applies to people of color as well.

When he opened up a complaint against a coworker for racist and harassing language, he was told the owner really liked the guy who often called Sincere “baby killer” and referred to him as “ghetto.” Sincere was told to reconsider his complaint.

When he didn’t, he soon found himself struggling to get his manager to give him the feedback and on-the-job training he was promised when he first started. His co-workers, White men who all had friendly relationships with the manager, were invited to training sessions the manager insisted Sincere didn’t have time to attend. Questions about his work or requests for assistance were ignored or fielded to his peers who responded by saying it wasn’t their job to help him.

Racks in a brightly-lit datacenter.

CC-BY Simon Carr, filtered.

The relationship with his manager deteriorated, quickly. Fearing the hostile exchanges were leading up to an unfair firing, Sincere began to keep a log.

16 July 2013Asked (redacted) for assistance in teaching me a process in the datacenter. He said “I don’t have time to show you.” Then asked (redacted) to accompany him to do the exact same process I asked him to show me.

Later he wrote: I asked (redacted) about (redacted) training and he said “Even the biggest idiots learn this, by now.”

After filing another complaint, Sincere was told his previous complaints were thrown out because they felt he wasn’t a good fit and would quit or be fired soon.

He was one of two Black men in the company and the only one to file a complaint when the office took to calling the morning shift, an all-White shift of security engineers, the “White Power” shift.

“I was surprised how little my skills or certifications mattered. It was more about who I knew, who liked me and who knew the boss longer.”

After working at his previous job for six years, Sincere quit after just eight months.

A co-worker who’d met him and liked him had moved on to a new company and invited Sincere to work alongside him. It had taken him one month to get his certifications, a month to find his first job and a few weeks to access a network that secured him another, higher-paying job.

“Most of it is who you know. Like everything else,” he told me, sounding dejected. A self-described nerd who was capable of building computers before most people in his peer group figured out how to open a floppy drive, tech was where he thought he’d fit.

Just a few months into his newest job, Sincere can only say he likes it more because interactions with co-workers are scarce. Most of his job is done alone and it’s what he credits with his plans to stay there long-term.

“This is how it starts”

After leaving the military, Sincere had found himself struggling to fit in nursing, a field he chose to help people. He was one of few males and few Blacks. He was surprised that tech, his life-long passion, was much the same. In nursing, he found himself as an outsider who couldn’t break in a board room made up of older white women. At his first tech job, he found himself an outsider who couldn’t break into a group of White men, because he wasn’t complicit in or silent about the “jokes” and biases.

He once made a suggestion that diversity in the office could be improved by training up people from the local shops who do similar jobs as dc operations technicians at small computer repair shops. His coworkers joked that the office didn’t need to look like the NFL. They also reminded Sincere he replaced a previous Black co-worker and that maybe he didn’t need competition. A larger office, his current job has thirty people working there. They consider the office diverse enough with a disappointing three Black males, one Indian man and two White women.

Sincere’s lack of interactions with his co-workers have allowed to him to observe interactions between the mainly White office and his Black co-workers. He’s noticed a complete difference in how his current Black manager is treated by his sub-ordinates and supported by higher-ups. For example, it’s common for Sincere to walk in on loud grumblings or read chat logs openly defying his manager, one of three Black men in the office.

While his co-workers are the ones creating the atmosphere, it’s HR and the owner who empower them, mostly by silence but also by disempowering the manager by restricting his managerial responsibilities and power. It took a gross instance of insubordination – an office wide-email filled with racist language from a systems administrator – before the owner would consider giving the only Black manager the power to write up or fire anyone.

There was no follow-up by HR addressing the email and the systems administrator had long quit before several other incidents prompted the owner to finally allow the Black manager the authority to do what most managers in all fields are allowed to do: discipline insubordination. The owner later defended the former systems administrator calling him, “an overall good guy” and said replacing system administrators was expensive.

Despite wishing he could stand up for his manager, Sincere feels he “can’t afford to speak up a second time.”

“This is how it starts,” Sincere had said. “ This is how the ol’ boys network starts.”

No New Industry

The fact is no new industry, no new sector or space can be created in America without importing our traditions of racism, sexism and queer-phobia if there aren’t intentional measures taken to ensure their absence.

Despite tech’s image of meritocracy and attempts to hide its issue with diversity, the industry is actually more homogenous than any other sector in the US. The pervasive lie that tech is special and therefore divorced from our social reality has actually made it so structural and interpersonal biases thrive, unchecked.

Photo of the Oracle campus behind a vast blue fountain. The four office buildings are looming, reflective, futuristic, blue and cylindrical against a day sky.

Oracle campus. CC-BY Håkan Dahlström, filtered.

Large firms have skirted the issue of diversity by convincing the Labor Department that stats concerning diversity are actually trade secrets and therefore cannot be shared.

With companies making sure their marketing and image remains more diverse than their actual workforce, tech is a sector rife with diversity issues ranging from transphobia to racism, and has successfully shielded itself for years from honest critique. Only recently has the issue of gender diversity become public discourse. Yet even as women come out about the toxic, hyper masculine work environment, the conversation has been steered towards the low numbers of women getting degrees in STEM.

While that is troublesome, it is only part of the problem. A Harvard study recently found women in tech are leaving the industry at almost double the rate of men, despite graduating in fields like computer engineering in higher numbers than previous years. The large attrition rate of women clearly points out that preparation is not the only limiting factor — there is also a toxic work environment that forces women out, keeping the industry male-dominated.

Because the only large firm to disclose its workforce’s racial make-up is Google, we don’t have a way yet to look at the attrition rate of minorities in tech. The discussion of race has barely begun in this industry but given how the conversation on gender diversity has gone, we can make some inferences on what the environment is like for racial minorities. In fact, one of the biggest indicators that the industry needs an overhaul may be the way the discourse on gender inequality has gone. Women who’ve dared to speak out on the rampant misogyny suffer verbal abuse, economic bullying and harassment online, with little in return. These women pay a high cost for the privilege of “getting a conversation started” that has yielded few changes.

It’s why Sincere felt using his name or standing up for a coworker of color would cost him too much for too little.

And so this is how White supremacy conquered the newest frontier, tech. With a cloak of secrecy about the presence of people of color employed. With an under-reported Github thread full of racist language, protesting the change of “master-slave” terminology. With minority employees afraid to speak up for one another for fear they’ll be targeted too.

This is how tech became the newest frontier for the ol’ boys club, the newest bastion of structural and economic White supremacy.