Bringing light to darkness: Why we fight for diversity

14 Aug 2017

Dr Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC. Image: kropic1/Shutterstock

Following the tragic events at Charlottesville, the cause of diversity has never been more critical, writes John Kennedy.

This column was originally meant to focus solely on James Damore’s petulant whine about the pro-diversity stance of his former employer, Google.

But the terrible events in Charlottesville in the US at the weekend have only served to remind us that we have sadly only scratched the surface in terms of making the value of diversity better understood.

With three dead (Heather Heyer was killed when a car drove into a crowd of protestors, and two police officers, H Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M M Bates, died in a helicopter accident while monitoring protests) and many more wounded in Charlottesville, it means that the US – and, moreover, the world – stands on a dangerous precipice.

How can a sexist essay by a perturbed male tech worker possibly compare with brutes making Nazi salutes and wilful, racist violence culminating in three unnecessary deaths? They stem from the same thing: a distinct lack of empathy for others.

And it shows that the road to true diversity is going to be a long one.

Damore was fired by his employer mainly because of the hurt and offence he caused within Google and in the wider tech world. But instead, Damore has become something of a cause célèbre among conservatives and alt-right types for freedom of speech.

At the core of Damore’s argument in a 10-page essay – titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – was a notion that women are not as biologically well suited for senior tech roles as men are.

“We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” Damore whined.

The article caused understandable outrage.

When I first read Damore’s screed, I thought at first it was some kind of a joke; that he was being mischievous and deliberately provocative. I briefly dismissed it as an offshoot of the increasingly redundant, but still enduring, ‘bro culture’ of Silicon Valley.

It was all the more surprising to come at the time it did. This is because for the past three or four years, the bias and discrimination that women, ethnicities and minorities face in the tech industry has been a simmering pot that has boiled over.

This has led to revelations about sexual harassment being commonplace in Silicon Valley firms, courageous people such as Ellen Pao bringing her employers to court, and massive changes in the boardroom at Uber, including the firing of founding CEO Travis Kalanick, following a myriad of stinging revelations.

Google had to act. And it had to act decisively by firing Damore.

But now, he is lionised by the alt-right and portrays US president Donald Trump’s conservative America as a victim of an intolerant, liberal mindset.

While I initially dismissed Damore’s essay, it is important to realise that there are many men in tech who think like he does. And that’s what we need to be concerned about.

Damore was unconsciously articulating one of the unresolved issues of the tech world, and it relates to men. It relates to how men are dealing with the message of diversity.

The entire industry is so focused on the new – the next iPhone, virtual reality, e-commerce, processor clock speeds, better bandwidth, self-driving cars, etc – but the fact is that a lot of men are simply reacting to diversity as if it is something new or something being foisted on them as they go about their busy and (self-) important tasks.

This does not explain away the actual bias and sexual harassment that continues to occur in the tech world, which is reprehensible in any industry or walk of life.

It seem that some men are insecure and aren’t sure what is happening around them. It begs the question: are tech firms being effective or fully inclusive in their communication around diversity?

Worryingly, instead of reasoning and showing empathy towards their female colleagues, some men are becoming entrenched in archaic ideals rather than opening their minds.

Efforts by companies such as Google to promote diversity are being twisted in these men’s minds as efforts to silence dissent rather than encourage open debate, which they ought to. This means the message and the way it is being delivered needs to be examined.

As one female Googler was quoted in The Economist: “I would be hard-pressed to name a person at Google who would disagree with 100pc of what he wrote.”

The biggest battle for diversity won’t be just dealing with these mindsets; it will be how diversity can be promoted and discussed openly, inclusively and constructively without people being labelled as ‘thought police’ by those who feel their cosy ivory towers are being threatened.

The last few years have been a watershed in bringing the purpose of diversity – and I mean the whole gamut, from sexual to racial – to the fore of the workplace.

The problem for Google and the wider tech world is that the actions of Damore reveal that the corporate language, or what passes for policy, isn’t getting through to some employees.

In fact, it is only causing them to be more alienated in their minds. And the mind, especially the entrenched mind, is a dangerous thing.

Bigots cannot win

I was watching a TV programme at the weekend where one of the original protestors who marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement of the 1960s talked about how love for music, prayer and food were the essential ingredients that sustained the morale of many of the protestors during those terribly bleak days of segregation in America’s south.

It was a simple message about common decency and solidarity, bonded by the simple things in life.

As I watched, my phone flashed up news that someone had been killed at a counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, while marching against white supremacy. A car had ploughed into the crowd of peaceful protestors, some carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter”.

One of the articles I read remarked upon how beautiful the scene had been, in terms of the human message and common purpose, just a heartbeat before a vehicle driven by hate transformed it into one of chaos and blood.

At the heart of the Charlottesville protest is the intended removal of a statue of General Robert E Lee, the Confederate general. The row once again brought up the divisions of America’s civil war of the 19th century and how the need to end slavery was one of the main causes.

Instead, it became a rallying point for white supremacists and hence, the counter-protest by those who believe diversity makes us stronger.

As I watched the TV scenes, I saw the old Confederate flag – often seen today as a symbol for racism and hatred in America – interspersed with the stars and stripes, as well as Klan flags and what looked like crude takes on the Nazi swastika. Some so-called Americans performed the Nazi salute. Some of them were armed and looked like military contractors from TV reports you’d see about Iraq.

And I wondered what the ancestors of these people – the men and women who fought in World War II and who defeated Nazism 72 years ago, liberating thousands of people who were victims of hate in concentration camps – would have thought about scenes reminiscent of torch-lit Nazi rallies from the 1930s, where they used to burn books, being replayed on American streets.

Hate and intolerance have no place in the modern world.

Diversity makes us stronger and better.

The streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, are thousands of miles from the shiny offices of Mountain View, California. But, poignantly, both are on the frontline of a new kind of war where diversity and acceptance of sex, race and creed must triumph over fear and hate.

The tech world – the symbol of all things new and boundary-breaking – needs to lead by example.

The fact that one of its own revealed that diversity is far from being embraced ideologically within the glittering halls of Silicon Valley is a reminder that the message of inclusivity has barely scratched the surface.

There is more work to be done. And it involves transparency and embracing others as equals, whether you agree with them or not.

A more persuasive argument for diversity is needed in tech.

In the immortal words of Dr Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness – only light can do that.”

Dr Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC. Image: kropic1/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years