The problem with diversity in technology is not that different kinds of people want (or don’t want) a career in a particular field; it’s that the conversation is rigged. A fair discussion of, say, whether major technology firms hire enough women should consider different points of view—not just a single perspective dictating to all others. Unfortunately, individuals are too often rolled over by the politically correct, religiously motivated juggernaut that has made the technology industry its latest target for inquisition.
Wisdom of Orwell
George Orwell noted and clearly exposed the very kind of religious fervor that underlies many political trends. Today, an example is the ongoing calls for greater diversity in the technology industry—which are often parroted by journalists. In his essay “Freedom of the Press,” he said,
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Consider today the case of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was excoriated for his impromptu comments about women in technology roles asking for raises. The response of Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft’s chief experience officer for the Applications and Services Group, was that Nadella’s comments have “opened up the conversation.” Roger Cheng at CNet notes, “The incident has spurred a wide discussion within the company about unconscious bias, according to Green, who said Microsoft employees had begun taking classes to spot biases.”
In other words, because Nadella broke with orthodoxy, he was browbeaten into repentance for his “unfashionable opinion” (to use Orwell’s words), and as an act of contrition, the employees of his organization have been subjected to re-education, lest they too retain any such “unfashionable” thinking. Among other penitent statements, Nadella said, “Diversity and inclusiveness is a critical topic for our time, for our industry, for Microsoft and it’s great to have a candid conversation about it, but most importantly robust action.” Of course, one wonders why a “conversation” (at least an honest one) is needed if a course of action is already deemed necessary. To someone on the outside of the debate, such a statement tends to indicate that the word “conversation” really means “brainwashing.”
Orthodoxy on Display
The religious fanaticism that surrounds the current “discussion” about diversity in the technology realm is on clear display. In the case of Microsoft, Nadella wasn’t asked to perhaps clarify his position or provide some examples that would justify his thinking, nor was even a modicum of consideration given to his words. Instead, he was essentially shouted into submission by a press that is largely compliant with politically correct orthodoxy. Now, Nadella may well have been wrong, but the point is that his opinion was deemed not just incorrect, but inadmissible—by many of the same people who say that one of the reasons why diversity is so important is because of the different perspectives it brings to a venture.
To gain perspective, consider another conversation that is currently underway in American society: the acceptability of torture. Some argue that although it is unpalatable, torture should be allowed under certain circumstances—such as in the case of suspected terrorists (an ever broadening category). One might easily argue that such thinking is a chilling example of the ends justifying the means, but the point is that this conversation, which is currently quite robust, involves one side that saying that it is acceptable to cause grievous pain by near-drowning, by humiliation or rape, by mutilation or by other means. That side is given a hearing in mainstream press outlets (see here, here and here, or Google “torture is justified”). But Nadella on how women should ask for raises? No consideration whatsoever.
Mull that over for a moment.
Whether and how one should ask for a raise from an employer versus whether it’s okay to torture another human being. Which conversation is more lively, and what does that say about not only the people talking, but how they treat one another?
A Real Conversation
None of this reasoning is to say that women and others do or don’t face challenges in pursuing their careers. Everyone deals with people who are spiteful or disrespectful for dumb reasons. No matter who you are, you’ll probably garner someone’s dislike because you’re a man, or because you’re a woman; because you’re too (fill in the physical trait); because you talk too much, or too little; because you drive a certain kind of vehicle, or ride your bike; and on and on. That’s the reality of a world inhabited by imperfect people.
A real conversation on diversity in technology must rise above the popular tripe that so many high priests of orthodoxy peddle. Before rushing into policies that require trampling of one set of individuals in the name of supporting another (“quotas,” whatever the politically correct name is today), an honest discussion would consider why such fervency is directed at technology but not other industries with tremendous imbalances (elementary and middle education, for instance, which is overwhelmingly dominated by women).
An honest discussion will also consider whether a certain breakdown of the population necessarily means the same breakdown can or should appear in every industry, association, organization and so on. In other words, perhaps the fact that 93.4% of speech-language pathologists are women doesn’t mean that there is an institutional bias against men, that from an early age men are discouraged from pursuing a career in speech-language pathology or that men lack role models to encourage them to find a rewarding career in an industry that seeks to help people live better lives.
If society can tolerate a discussion of whether it’s okay to torture another human being—that is, a discussion of whether the ends justify the means—then perhaps even Satya Nadella can be given a fair hearing (however brief) without a subsequent inquisition. Perhaps Nadella is right or perhaps he is wrong; and perhaps his organization shouldn’t be turned into a de facto re-education camp simply because he expressed an opinion that some people don’t like.
To be sure, some opinions may be more ludicrous than others, depending on your worldview. Unfortunately, however, the purveyors of diversity are framing the debate in a manner that effectively prohibits any dissenting view. Said Orwell over a half-century ago, partially regarding a once not-so-hated Soviet dictator,
Is every opinion, however unpopular—however foolish, even—entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No.’ In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.
Simply replace “English” with “American” and “an attack on Stalin” with “Nadella’s view on women and raises,” and you have an accurate description of the so-called conversation regarding women (or, more broadly, diversity) in technology.
Yet as a look at history shows, political/cultural orthodoxy is not only extremely fickle, it can be downright blind. How, you might ask, could otherwise very intelligent people in academia and the press coddle one of the most bloodthirsty men in history? Fortunately, the matter of diversity is less macabre, but it is surrounded by the kind of religious fervor that one would more expect of a jihad than a democratic appeal to fairness.
A truly fruitful conversation needs to consider a variety of perspectives, but such an effort need not involve denigrating, demeaning or otherwise downplaying the intelligence, talent or drive of anyone, regardless of who they are.