Why Do We Only Care About Programmers?

We Need to Expand the Tech Diversity Conversation

by Hannah Howard on February 24th, 2014

Recent discussions of diversity in technology tend to focus solely on people who code or program for a living. Yet the groups of people whose work is essential to the tech industry is vastly larger. Consider any of the following roles, without which the technology sector could not function:

  1. A miner extracting raw materials for electronics
  2. A sales associate in a retail store selling cell phones and laptops
  3. A security guard watching the parking lot at a Silicon Valley tech company
  4. An assembly line worker manufacturing all kinds of electronics in Shenzhen, China

Three workers arranging circuit boards in a tray at workstations in the Seagate factory in China.

Creative Commons photo by scobleizer

The true potential of technology-related social justice work lies in this vastness of scope. A strong feminist, anti-racist movement for social and economic justice in the tech sector could potentially improve the lives of billions of people. To date though, most activism has focused on a small group of people who are ultimately already near the top.

It’s hard to imagine the American labor movements of the early twentieth century would have carried any power had they focused only on those who engineered cars, without considering the factory workers in Detroit and other cities who made them. Yet, that is what we do when we focus primarily on those that design technology and write software; by largely ignoring those who manufacture technology, sell it, support it and repair it, we diminish the transformative potential of our work.

My Life As A Tech Worker

I have been close to the technology sector most of my life, but professionally, I’ve only spent the past year and a half as a programmer. First, I worked in non-profits where I was almost always the person people went to with IT questions. I then served as a technician at a large consumer technology retail store for several years, and later as an entry-level tech support person in various medium size companies.

As a technician at the retail store I worked under fairly challenging conditions– we were asked to help an endless stream of highly frustrated customers, each in a time-limit of 15 minutes. Our team was consistently understaffed. At least when I worked there, we often helped two customers at once to handle demand. We constantly got sick because of the close quarters, and due to a policy that penalized workers for being sick. Each sickness counted as being tardy to work, so most people worked through their illness instead, and got others sick. Our break room for all 200 employees was ten feet by ten feet.

When I working in retail, which I did the longest, I had one of the higher positions in the store, which none-the-less paid a fairly modest middle class salary ($18/hr in major cities). During my employment at the store, in the non-profit work I had before that, and the IT jobs I had after, I always felt my work was disposable.

An example of the type of retail technician work Howard references, Apple Genius Bar, shown with three workers standing behind a counter.

Creative Commons photo by ping ping

A year and a half ago, I leveraged a ten-year-old computer science degree to break into the job market as a programmer. In addition to being much better paid, I now feel much more in control over my work life. Managers I interact with treat me as something of an equal, even if they hold the final say, where as before I always felt like I was seen as lesser than (I admit this is a bit intangible– but the feeling is palpable). I feel conspicuously privileged in comparison to my friends, most of whom are some combination of unemployed, working part-time, or struggling to stay employed at a low-paying job. If I lose a job, I have an inbox of recruiter emails to follow up with. People talk about a shortage of programmers rather than getting a stack of resumes for each open position.

Innovators vs. Everybody Else

Why is my life so much different as a programmer than a retail worker? I believe the answer to this question lies in how most people think of the tech industry. If you asked people who’s behind a tech company like Apple, most people would think of Steve Jobs, or maybe a small team of ingenious engineers who came up with ideas like the iPhone. In fact, the media has given us three decades of stories just like this– people in garages thinking differently and changing the world.

But do these ideas simply transform themselves into products that change our lives? Obviously they don’t — and in most cases this transformation happens because of the labor of hundreds of thousands.

Our distorted view of reality creates a basic class division in the tech industry between the ‘innovators’ and everybody else. Large tech companies tend to be quite segregated by the function of their employees. This separation is often geographic: programmers in Silicon Valley, retails workers and factory workers spread around the world. But even in a single Silicon Valley campus, tech companies tend to outsource blue collar jobs like food service workers, janitors, and security guards to subcontractors. This separation makes a very clear statement about whose work is central to “innovation” and whose is not.

Different Context, Different Conversations

When I became a programmer, I was really excited to see conversations about gender diversity were happening out in the open on Twitter, in essays, even in person periodically at conferences. As a woman, I immediately related to these issues because when I worked in retail, I heard all kinds of offensive comments from my fellow employees. In that ten foot by ten foot break room, male employees would talk about female customers they hit on, and at least a few times porn showed up on the common employee computers.

But the solutions being proposed by some tech diversity advocates, such as managers being more sensitive and empowering workers, or relying on stronger HR policies, are not the ones I would propose.

During my employment, I raised issues of sexism and harassment with my managers several times, but eventually I noticed the pattern of events went something like this: the manager would thank me for raising the issue and in fact would usually be quite sympathetic, and then a few hours later the employee who made the comments would get in trouble. Usually I’d see them in the breakroom after a stern talking-to looking very forlorn, upset and nervous. If I raised an issue more than once, I noticed managers developed a cold relationship to me as well. So eventually I started just taking issues to other employees directly– it was uncomfortable, and usually the most I got was “I’m sorry if you were offended”, but I honestly felt better about handling it directly than getting us both in trouble by raising it with a manager.

Three workers, in blue shirts and name badges, talking to one another in an empty Apple store.

Creative Commons photo by Randolf Jorberg

At the end of the day, given that the person in question was usually making $14/hr and we were both being asked to work in absurdly difficult conditions, I felt I had much more common interest with them than either a manager or the HR department, even if the majority of managers were women. After a while, it became clear to me the primary role of both managers and HR was to manage dissent, so why bring anything up in the first place? (As a side note– this makes a lot of sense given that retail chain workers are not unionized and most companies would like to keep this from happening.)

I’ve also noticed that while gender is openly talked about among programmers, race for the most part is not. This is definitely a change for me. Many of the jobs I’ve had until now have been in environments that were majority people of color. The store I worked at in Los Angeles was particularly racially diverse, and race was a constant topic of conversation. People talked about race in serious terms and through humor — I heard a lot of “politically incorrect” jokes while I was there. In contrast, in the programming world I rarely hear a politically incorrect joke, but I also notice there are very few people of color present at all. Now, what I often hear is white people using racially coded language without even knowing it– frequent analogies to software development as pioneering a frontier, or using Asian words and culture to refer to programming concepts that really have nothing to do with Asians or Asian culture (‘Rails is omakase!’).

Though I’ve only been part of the programming class a short time, it’s hard for me not to recognize that most of the positions I’ve been employed in before were nonetheless quite privileged. While the retail store’s salaries were weak, the health benefits were amazing. When I inquired about the security guards who worked at the store, I learned they were subcontracted through another company and they didn’t get any of the benefits I got. They made less money than retail workers. Where the store staff was multi-racial, the security guards were almost all people of color. Few retail employees actually even talked much to the security guards. Whether it was because they were generally much older, or because they didn’t wear the same uniform, or weren’t invited to all store meetings, they were largely invisible to rest of the workforce within the store.

At least so far, conversations in the tech diversity movement largely reflect the distorted innovator-centric view of reality, and focus mostly on the lives of women who are programmers. It’s a shame, because much of the diversity in tech lies outside the programmer class.

The Big Picture

Beyond the layers of middle- and working-class American workers who make the work of Silicon Valley possible, there is a huge workforce invisible to most Americans who manufacture our electronics. I’m hopeful that most people are generally aware of the working conditions in some of these manufacturing plants in Asia, India, and South America: 14 hour work days, worker suicides, living on-site at the factory in cramped barracks, workers going into debt just to get a job, and allegations of use of child labor.

What many may not know is a huge portion of the workers in these factories are women— and they are usually in the lower-level, most gruelling positions. While it is difficult to identify with people you may never actually meet, or conditions you can’t personally see, each of us in the US really shows our callousness to these women every time we buy a cell phone without considering how it was made. Ultimately, while much of the work to change these labor conditions will come from activists on the ground, people in the U.S. have a powerful role to play as major consumers of these electronics.

When we consider feminist and anti-racist activism in the tech world, we ought to ask ourselves what will make the lives of the mostmarginalized and underrepresented groups in tech better. While as a woman programmer, the weight of brogrammer sexism feels overwhelming to me, a part of me asks: how many women’s lives will I actually improve if I focus only on fighting brogrammers? What would the women who made my iPhone think if I spent all my time fighting for codes of conduct at conferences I go to, and none fighting for better labor conditions for factory workers?

Moreover, how many people’s lives could we improve if instead of worrying about whether VCs fund enough women, we instead advocated for redistributing their wealth back to the people whose labor they became wealthy on? I realize these kinds of questions are sensitive to bring up, and I don’t want to dismiss the existing work of amazing activists in the tech world. But at some point, if we truly care about ending sexism, racism, and classism in technology, we have to recognize that tech justice goes way beyond the lives of marginalized people in the world of programming.