Bias doesn’t start with skin color.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Look around your office.

If you’re in tech, I suspect I can predict what you see: lots of white faces.

We’ve known tech to be a sea of white faces for a long time. Big companies respond by sponsoring code education programs and hiring (usually white) Directors of Diversity. But the numbers aren’t changing: tech remains 95-98% white, just like it was before the Directors of Diversity got hired.

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Leadership calls it a pipeline problem. Because, let’s be real, no one in our office is racist—right? We’ve got that one Latino dev that everybody loves. And everyone here is pretty sure they have at least one black friend. How could we love that dev, and have that friend, and also be racist?

The problem is, we think racism is about being mean to someone based on their skin color. But the reality is a much more nuanced—and insidious—set of assumptions that we don’t even realize we’re making.

And when we don’t see those assumptions, we can’t fix them. And that’s how the numbers don’t change.

First of all, we value a set of skills and norms that align with white culture and white experiences.

Let’s illustrate with an example: assertiveness.

In the tech and startup worlds, we looove our flat org structures, and we want assertive people to come help our company disrupt stuff. We want employees who question the status quo, who share their ideas, and who speak out.

But while we think that we value assertiveness, what we actually value is assertiveness within the context of white culture.

First of all, we see assertiveness as a good thing exclusively if it is presented to us in a white way: by a person who speaks the King’s English that we learn in school, especially in an east coast, west coast, or midwestern accent. Other language tropes are not considered erudite, and when we hear raised voices using them, we don’t think “assertive;” we think “trouble.”

A while back I was walking on the sidewalk with a friend. My friend does not speak very loudly, so when a loud group of people is walking behind us we usually pull over and let them pass. Once, he and I pulled over as a boisterous group of black teenagers passed us by. My friend commented that the way they “yell at each other” is the reason that “other people” feel uncomfortable in their presence. He felt that groups of black people were generally louder and more disruptive than groups of white people.

So, for the next week, I counted how many times we pulled over because a group of black people was being too loud versus a group of white people. The numbers were taken in predominantly white neighborhoods, so it wouldn’t surprise you to know that 80% of the times we pulled over, it was for a group of white people. But the white groups’ noise did not disturb my friend the way the black groups’ noise did because of the subconscious assumption that white people are less threatening than black people.

Now here’s where skin color comes into play.

We make assumptions about which behaviors are “better” than others, but we also make assumptions about who will exhibit “better” behaviors based on skin color. Once we already have these assumptions, we notice occasions that confirm the assumptions more than we notice occasions that contradict them (this is called confirmation bias). And then we snap judge people without meaning to.

This is how white men who speak up get coded as “assertive,” white women who speak up get coded as “abrasive,” women of color who speak up get coded as “hysterical,” and men of color who speak up get coded as “dangerous”—often regardless of the language and behavior they use to speak up.

This affects how judged groups behave.

When we look for assertiveness in our job interview process, even if we’re welcoming it through any language and behavior modality, we are biasing the interview process against demographics who have, their whole lives, been negatively characterized any time they raise their voices. In order to maximize their own safety and acceptance, marginalized people learn to speak more softly and allow themselves to be interrupted more often. BAM! “Not assertive enough. Send in the next candidate.”

And this is just one example.

The workplace requires people to seamlessly effuse language & behavior that makes white people comfortable.

Usually, that Latino dev that everyone loves, and the black friend you have, talk and act comfortably in ways acceptable to white culture. Maybe they can code switch into what white people would consider “ethnic” behavior or language, but it is not their norm at work. By the way, they spent time and effort, and may have even sacrificed a piece of who they were, to sound and act the way they do in front of you.

They did that because at work, only certain modalities of expression are considered acceptable, professional, or proper. We rarely stop to think about who gets to decide what behavior counts as acceptable, professional, and proper. We just go with it. And most racism is just that – people (of any race, not just white people) going with a socially accepted, arbitrarily defined standard of which voices are worth listening to.

And that leaves BIPOC especially (that’s black and indigenous people of color) with fewer means of demonstrating their skills and value to white culture-based institutions. So they get filtered out of tech—to the extreme detriment of the tech community. We lose their unique perspectives, lived experiences, and talents, not to mention their insights into a consumer market that will very soon comprise the majority of the U.S. population.

Today, I’d encourage you to take a look at your company’s job descriptions.

But I want you to do more than just look at the job requirements and go ‘Oh, if we put 4 years’ experience then all the applications will be women with 6 years’ experience and dudes with 2.’ You’re already doing that? Great. I’m challenging you to do more. After all, moonshot problems require audacious solutions (right, Google)?

Think about your evaluation criteria for hiring and promotion.

If you need a starting point, begin with one of the benign-seeming positive descriptors we use for people in the tech industry: they’re technical, objective, logical, down-to-earth, someone I’d like to grab a beer with. How have white cultural norms affected the way we characterize these descriptors? What experiences have rich white kids had that make them more likely to exhibit these traits? How might experiences different from the rich white kid one have made it harder, or even scary, for others to try to exhibit these traits during an interview?

For example, we already talked about why applicants of color might skew less “assertive”—not because they can’t be assertive, but because they could do the same thing as an “assertive” white guy and get called hysterical or dangerous.

How about “someone I’d like to grab a beer with?” Most of us gravitate toward friends who look mostly like us. Even if they don’t, they forrrrrrr-sure sound like us. So if this is one of your criteria for hiring, your hiring manager will select for people who look like them.

Technical. Tech loves this one. Problem is, we have learned to latch onto the mistakes and weaknesses of women and people of color more than we do to white men. And this isn’t just a white guy distortion—we all do this. Women and people of color need to be competent and smart and likable and stylish and helpful and and and and and. When they’re not, we notice—and discount their value for—their weaknesses more than we do for white guys, who are allowed to be tragic geniuses with social problems and still earn our respect and reverence (compare media coverage of Elon Musk or Travis Kalanick to articles on Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes or businessman and investor Daymond John and you’ll see what I mean real fast).

So I’m challenging you, tech disruptors, to look for the ways that context affects whether and how people can demonstrate the qualities that matter in your hiring and promotion process. And I’m asking you whether and how management would encourage those demonstrations, look for those demonstrations, notice those demonstrations.

Consider how voices that are different from yours might be discouraged and silenced in the context of your work environment. What would it take to change that?

Until Directors of Diversity dig into that question, the numbers aren’t likely to go anywhere.

Great, Chelsea. So what do I do?

I mentioned evaluating your job descriptions and hiring/promotion criteria. I know a couple of teams have seen improvements by changing their promotion rubrics to hold employees accountable for behavior that contributes to an inclusive culture. Here’s a concrete way to do that.

And you’ll need to do something like that in order to attract more diverse talent. Here’s a piece about why your efforts to make your hiring pipeline more diverse might not be working.

If you’re interested in diving deeper (ahem, much deeper) into the ways that white middle-class dominant culture weaves itself into the fabric of tech culture and professional culture—and the alternatives we could access that would make all our lives better!—this might be the series for you.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

A rubric for evaluating employee contributions to an inclusive company culture

Why your efforts to fix your pipeline aren’t fixing your pipeline

An introduction to the price of whiteness in tech

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