The rise of the tech industry as an economic engine for global ecosystems has generated a success matrix that embeds archaic societal archetypes. On its path to ‘move fast and break things,’ products and services have built-in biases, spawning flawed paradigms and tools that filter out diversity of culture and representation for the industry and consumers alike.
From glass ceilings to echo chambers
The sad fact is that the tech industry, known for elevating innovative practices and processes, has transformed the old-school glass ceilings into modern digital echo chambers that impact its people and work culture, and sometimes even the tech platforms and products it produces.
In other words, if the makeup of a company adheres to a singular archetype – be it gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, or mindset – it will inevitably result in a flawed process and output. Some examples include computer vision that fails to identify the complexion of dark skin users, guarantees a binary representation of virtual assistants, creates aesthetically subservient female avatars, and churns out high-tech credit cards infused with algorithmic gender discrimination. This is not only a bad design practice but also a bad business strategy.
Some of these biases have been translated into entire company cultures, with evident discrimination in the hiring practices and promotion of marginalized demographics, thereby creating unethical practices and even protecting toxic cultures that restrict present and past employees from contesting, reporting, or suing companies for such practices.
However, the social accountability needle is finally swinging in the right direction.
From critical media and users to social impact groups such as #MeToo and #BLM, the community that has been created around solving these social and political issues enables individuals to share personal stories and take an active stance. Platforms and companies that have conveniently ignored their own toxic and discriminating practices are being called out. This hurts companies that have made eyeballs and engagement their holy grail, and the “Cosi fan tutte” mantra that tech moguls and entrepreneurs murmured for years, is no longer a valid response.
Tech companies are increasingly being scrutinized to adhere to their part of the social contract in order to keep a positive relationship with consumers. Moreover, they are being asked to pay a hefty price for their neglectful role through the reconsideration of regulations and restrictions by policymakers, walk-offs and resignations of employees, and corporate boycotts.
But can we fix the tech industry?
Since biases are an inevitable part of the human and social construct, the big question is whether we can eliminate or at least dramatically reduce baked-in biases. Keisha Howard has been working as a tech strategist in experiential tech and gaming for the last 11 years. Her frustration led her to found Sugar Gamers, a non-profit focused on networking and advocating for marginalized and underrepresented minorities in tech and gaming.
“As a person that experienced it from the very onset, I feel frustrated by the fact that simple inequalities that relate to who I am and how I look still exist. My experience almost marks that we have to start from scratch in order to fix this,” says Howard, “This is a hard nut to crack.”
The solution needs to be rooted in shifting the matrix of success and ensuring that the goals of the tech industry, while still based on profit, will also be evaluated on the negative social footprint their practices and products might carry. Such standards should be regulated, Howard adds. “Much like spilling toxic waste, the tech industry needs to have the same responsibilities and ramifications for creating toxic cultures and practices.” The conversation must revolve around how diversity will make your business thrive, and how the lack of diversity is a hurdle for successful innovation and growth. “More of those types of conversations, backed up with some data that demonstrates and quantifies it, is going to do magic,” concludes Howard.
Awareness is not enough to resolve these issues. Having the willingness to make a profound change is a problem that companies still tip-toe around. Even when tech companies put in place new roles that are meant to address issues such as diversity and inclusion, such efforts seem insufficient and ineffective. Companies often place a token person that can advocate for the company’s intent, but fail to develop teams and real practices that will guarantee effective, dynamic and lasting change.
Finding solutions through play
Gary Ware, the founder of Breakthrough Play, is a sought-after Corporate Facilitator that works on transforming work cultures and sparking collaboration through playful and experiential methods. He identifies more subtle facets of biases that are harder to address: “As a black man, I find that many biases are based on the assumption of white people. Even exercise apps tailor their activities and recommendations to specific body types and lifestyles.”
These products and services mark a systematic bias that diminishes accessibility and encourages a specific and narrow cultural perspective. The frustration of developers that need to adhere to cultural appropriation and subtleties is not unfounded. Taking into consideration all behaviours, backgrounds and experiences is a challenging and restrictive process when applied to mass-distributed tools. In turn, the topic has become a loaded space, and companies find themselves paralyzed from the fear of making mistakes, and retreating into safe solutions and curated press releases.
Ware’s approach is rooted in creating activities and spaces that are playful and innovative. “This is where the play comes in,“ says Ware. “Even when we address ‘heavy’ topics, [the activities] are more effective than sitting in a boardroom and discussing it. Through serious play, you create a safe space for casting your voice; it seeds a true sense of intimacy and generates collaborative and innovative solutions.”
As we laughed at the mandatory ‘innovative and inclusive ping-pong table’ that startups and tech companies display to demonstrate their openness, I asked him how a person working in a company with inherited biases might approach leadership and management teams that deny there is a problem or fail to address it.
Ware replies, “Leaders that fail to realize what the problem is cannot always be confronted or taught to do the right thing. In these situations, we need to bring to life their curiosity and empathy, so they will see for themselves that they are short-sighted. Ask many questions, use situations that are parallel and relevant to them, so they can understand what it feels like, and what it means to be short-handed.”
To conclude, I don’t believe we can scrap the entire tech industry and start over, but it does require a radical change to diminish the toxic, biased features it hones. To achieve that it simply needs to do what it does best: be very methodical when identifying the problem, commit to (self) disruption, generate creative solutions, and act swiftly and effectively to implement them.