How Our Engineering Environments are Killing Diversity: Introduction
March 09, 2015
I'm giving a talk at PyCon next month called "How our engineering environments are killing diversity and how we can fix it." I've been giving technical talks at conferences for a few years now but in that time I've avoided giving any talks specifically on gender and diversity. Partly because I'm scared and partly because it has taken me a while to get my thoughts in order. For the next month I’m writing a series of in-depth blog posts on the topics I’m going to cover during my talk. These posts will take a look at a series of problems with engineering and tech environments that are hindering attempts to create diverse teams. This first post will cover why diversity matters, how environments affect us, why we need to talk about them, and how can they hurt diversity. I won't go into too much detail about the specific biases that exist in our engineering culture because that is the purpose of my upcoming posts.
Why does diversity matter?
Drawn from an image originally by Andy Gonsalves
Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can't breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.
When women are leaving an industry at the rates they are leaving software engineering [1], that indicates an unhealthy and potentially dangerous situation. These anaerobic engineering environments are killing more than gender and race diversity, however; those two things just happen to be the salient symptoms of a larger set of problems with our engineering culture. Bad environments hurt a lot of people from a lot of different demographics and kill creativity, problem-solving, and productivity.
'There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”' [2]
In his famous commencement speech, This is Water, David Foster Wallace encourages graduating seniors to be mindful during the mundane challenges of everyday life; to realize that while we can't control everything that happens, we can control how we look at the world. When it comes to how our engineering environments hurt diversity, we in the engineering community are a lot like these fish who don't know they're swimming in water. We have unspoken understandings, assumptions, and biases about what it means to work on a team, communicate with others, build software, and be an engineer. Despite living as engineers every day, we're largely unaware of how our unconscious biases create an environment that is harmful to diversity. Is arguing the best way for people to figure out solutions to technical problems? Are you more critical of some people than others? Does that stupid idea suggested during a meeting really deserve to be publicly shot down? During my talk, I will take a look at some of the hard-to-see problems with our engineering environments that hurt efforts towards diversity.
How do environments affect our behavior?
Environments are the things that make up your surroundings, both tangible and intangible. Environmental factors can be physical, like the layout of an office or the layout of a theater. They can also be intangible, like power structures or social norms. A theater layout tells us where to sit and where to look, and social norms tell us what to wear and how to behave during a performance. The tangible and intangible environmental factors combine to inform people how they should behave in that environment. Environments can affect our behavior in strong and unexpected ways. A study by the Kellogg School of Management found that participants wearing a white scientist's or doctor's lab coat performed better on a "stroop" test - where participants are supposed to say the color of a word being shown instead of the word itself [3].
Why is it important to talk about environments?
In modern Western culture, the stories we tell often focus on individual narratives. An example of a popular individual narrative is the hero's journey, where the individual triumphs over extraordinary circumstances [4]. This focus on the individual bleeds out of fictional stories into the real world, and often leads us to put the onus on individuals for overcoming obstacles in their lives. Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In [5], is a classic example of this kind of narrative. She talks about things that individual women can do to overcome career challenges related to gender. A lot of people took issue with this perspective because it largely ignored institutional and environmental factors that cause the problems women are facing. It’s important to understand the environmental and institutional factors that affect people’s behavior and ability to be successful at their jobs because these forces are far more powerful than any one individual. Despite what The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars might lead you to believe.
Sexism and racism often manifest as institutional and environmental factors that make it systematically harder for one group to succeed than another. These environmental factors are not reliant on one individual's actions, but instead many individual actions. This makes it difficult to point out sexist behavior because it is a trend, not an instance. And because institutional discrimination is frequently decoupled from individual intentions, people from the groups on the receiving end of discrimination can actually perpetuate a system that is sexist or racist towards themselves.
For example, there was a blog post written recently by a female company president who wanted to apologize to mothers she had discriminated against before having a child herself [6]. She talks about judging mothers for not being able to make after hours drinks, considering firing women before they got pregnant, and believing mothers to be incapable of bearing the load of work and children. Is this woman the sole cause of discrimination against mothers? No. She's part of a system that creates unnecessarily inflexible work hours for employees, that expects women to be primary caregivers, and that measures employee loyalty through long hours and attendance at extra-curricular social events. She judged women with children harshly for being unable to meet her work environment's standards, but she did not create those standards. She simply perpetuated them.
How did our engineering environments end up biased?
It’s not crazy that the tech industry ended up biased. If you look back at the history of Silicon Valley, you can see that it was founded by men, almost exclusively white, who were aggressive pioneers in their field. These early tech founders instilled their beliefs in the cultures of the companies they started and funded. They instilled beliefs that worked well for them, beliefs like aggression, long work hours, and meritocracy. It's important to understand the context of these values, however. Men in America have historically not been primary caregivers, so valuing hard work in the form of long work hours makes sense for someone who has a partner raising children but won't work for someone who does not. Similarly, aggression might be useful in siloed business contexts, but untempered aggression in the workplace can be harmful to coworkers and teammates.

The original members of this field also removed obstacles that they faced. They were able to clear most of the institutional obstacles that existed for them as a group because humans are good at optimizing for themselves. If the workplace is a giant obstacle course, then our careers are a race through that obstacle course. So while a white guy might have some hurdles to overcome as an engineer, he’s pretty much running the 100m dash thanks to his predecessors. Other groups are not quite as fortunate. Institutional obstacles have not been cleared for them. Not out of any particular malice; mostly out of ignorance that the problems even exist. So women, minorities, trans people, and other groups who haven't been strongly represented in this field historically are not racing the 100m dash. They’re running various levels of steeplechase races. To say that these races will ever be entirely fair is naive, but as we get more diverse people in the engineering field we should work to remove the obstacles that they face.
Problem Areas in Engineering Environments
My talk next month will cover several problem areas for engineering environments and ways to start fixing them. The problems we face aren't devoid of solutions; there are a lot of things that companies, teams, and individuals can do to fix problems in their work environment. For the month of March, I will be posting detailed articles about the problem areas I will cover in my talk: argument cultures, feedback, promotions, employee on-boarding, benefits, safety, engineering process, and environment adaptation.
Blog Posts Series: How our Engineering Environments are Killing Diversity
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