Friday, July 18, 2014

Silicon Valley Diversity

Suppose your house is on fire and you are trapped on the second floor.  You feel the door and it’s very hot, so you know the fire is right outside the room.  You rush to the window and breath a sigh of relief as you see the rest of your family standing on the lawn and a firefighter raising a ladder to your window.  When he arrives at the window you are ready to go, but suddenly notice that your savior is a black man or a Hispanic woman or someone of Oriental descent.  Do you really care?  Your primary concern at the time is whether that particular individual and all the others fighting the fire are the most skilled for the job they are doing, carrying you down the ladder and controlling the fire.  A refusal on your part to go based on race, gender or other characteristics would be foolish and possibly fatal.

Now suppose your rescuer turns out to be a 90-pound teenager.  She has been hired by the fire department to fulfill a requirement based on under-representation of teenagers of small stature.  Of course this last is a ridiculous example, but the point of the argument is that if we are receiving services, any services whether they be exceptional or quotidian, we have a right to expect that the best-qualified people deliver these services.

This comes to mind when I read criticism or even a comment in the press about diversity in Silicon Valley, lately directed at Facebook and Yahoo.   As when the firefighter reaches the top of the ladder to carry you to safety, don’t you want the best-qualified person coding a website or videogame, don’t you want the most user-friendly experience?

Where is the evidence that racial or ethnic or gender diversity is beneficial in this industry or provides better customer service?  It’s usually justified with feelings of unfairness or feelings of some vague incompleteness rather than with hard evidence of benefit, but just say diversity and everyone jumps on board, swearing that it is better than homogeneity by race or sex.  Educators at the college level claim that students get a better education in a diverse environment, but no studies back that up.  You can’t even claim a better education unless you have a standard of measurement for education; and if they do, please share it with the others who are struggling with and fighting about tests to use as a basis of teacher and student evaluations.  Diversity is justified by the fact that everyone feels better about it and no one feels cheated – except possibly the customer or the better-qualified applicant who was excluded.

When you think about it, there is no lamer comment than, “looking around the room you can see the (lack of) diversity.”  Race and sex are so limited in their ability to differentiate people.  How can you quickly glance around a room and distinguish:  introverts from extraverts, night owls from early birds, leaders from followers, calm from quick-tempered, optimists from pessimists, patient from eager, sensitive from boorish, frugal from prodigal, those from rich families from those from poor families, or degrees of intelligence or creativity?  In 1936 Allport and Odbert published a list of 17,953 ”Terms Characterizing Personal Behavior and Personality.”  How simplistic is it to think that the entire range of experiences, attitudes and preferences can be captured by a few physical characteristics!

It’s not a bad thing to remind the Silicon Valley companies that there may be a larger pool of qualified candidates and that discrimination by race or sex is not only illegal but also detrimental to the company itself.  It’s not a bad thing to remind women and those whose race is under-represented that there are good jobs available for people with the right qualifications.  But let’s not automatically assume that the companies in question are foolishly rejecting good candidates based on personal biases or that the webpages and video games would automatically function better and be more appealing merely by adjusting the balance to meet some arbitrarily-set mix of physical attributes.

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