Let me tell you a story.
A friend of mine who shall remain nameless is an engineer at a financial services company that shall also remain nameless. After complaints to HR about the behavior of the finance and sales bros who constitute the majority of the staff, HR arranged for a diversity educator to come and speak. The contents of the training were so abstract and non-actionable that HR sent out a company-wide apology afterward for wasting the employees’ time. Who benefited, here? Not the employees, who lost several hours out of their day to the modern-day equivalent of a revival-tent meeting. The speaker received a handsome fee for her services, despite their uselessness with respect to their stated purpose. However, the company benefited despite the loss of productivity and the cost of the speaker: they’ve checked off the “diversity training” box on their List of Things That Will Protect Them From a Lawsuit.
“Diversity training” largely serves as malpractice insurance for human resources. Companies know that at any moment they could find their name trending on Twitter as the outrage of the day. “We held a diversity training” is something legal can say to offload liability: “we told people we expected something out of them, so it’s their fault for not following whatever abstract, ill-defined advice they were given, not our fault for ignoring behavior going on in our office.” Hiring a diversity speaker costs less than a lawsuit, and thus there exists a cottage industry of professional-class women who travel the country to lecture engineers about how their very existence upsets professional-class women. Companies trumpet the commencement of diversity initiatives in press releases and on social media, but follow-ups describing the concrete achievements — or failures — of such initiatives are curiously hard to find.
Maybe it’s because the people currently selling it — and buying it — don’t want it to.
In economics, Goodhart’s law states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Thanks to case law in the United States, “we held a diversity training” is now a measure which, having become a target, is no longer useful as a measure. It is also a market — but it is a market for what the buyers want to buy. As is usual when buyers have their wallets open, there are always people willing to sell to them. Even, as it happens, some of the most vocal you’re-either-with-us-or-you’re-against-us feminists.
For all its pretentions to radicalism, tech diversity activism is rife with justification and preservation of the status quo. Dismissing thirty years of psychological research into flow states as a “hacker myth,” feminist magazine Model View Culture characterizes consideration for individuals’ sensory needs as “mismanagement,” subtly justifying managerial decisions to corral employees in open-plan offices in markets where real estate costs more than the productivity lost due to increased sick days. (Meanwhile, in the real world, sensory processing disorders affect as many as 1 in 6 people.)
Many of the tools and jargon that Sumana Harihareswara, formerly of now-defunct feminist protection racket the Ada Initiative, calls the “inessential weirdnesses” of tech — a term borrowed from activist and sociologist-of-activism Betsy Leondar-Wright, but mutilated into a conformity-promoting shadow of its former self — are inessential to managers and most neurotypicals, but relevant to the people who actually make technology. Technical terminology is as essential for precise communication about math and computer science topics as names are for precise communication about other people. And given that both email and IRC support text, standalone graphical, and browser-based interfaces, how is anyone harmed when some developers choose a console interface and others choose a GUI? These are faux-concrete concerns, presented in the name of “inclusiveness,” but conveniently serving to put those filthy nerdy console jockeys in their place in the business pecking order — firmly beneath the modern, progress-loving types who write the checks. “Our preferences align with yours, non-technical founders and executives,” their subtext coos. “We’ll help you totalize them across the people whose effort keeps your customers’ money coming in.”
Tech feminism is notorious for what Thomas Kochman terms a “high offense-low defense” verbal confrontation style: antagonistic, but quick to take personal offense. A “low offense-low defense” style is easier to interact with, but can also be the good cop to high offense-low defense’s bad cop. When someone has plenty to tell you about what not to do, but nothing concrete or actionable about what to do, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that their instructions are for their convenience rather than your benefit. “My preferences are more important than yours, so stop existing so noticeably around me!” is not actually for your own good. That isn’t education, it’s the creation of a willing victim.
There is, however, a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Currently, Elissa Shevinsky and Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack are crowdfunding a video series, “Hiring Goggles,” focused on two concrete, related challenges in building a technical workforce that reflects and understands its customer base: hiring and retention. Van Vlack previously created a series on technical interviewing for underserved people, along with Liz Dahlstrom. Both have a consistent history of opening doors for others, and have edited collections of essays from successful women technologists (from all walks of life) about how, much like the Internet interprets censorship, to interpret discrimination as damage and route around it in the social graph.
As CEOs of tech startups themselves, Shevinsky and Van Vlack have correctly realized that the high-offense approach favored by totalizing groups like Model View Culture and the Ada Initiative — “the beatings will continue until diversity improves” — fails not only thanks to the backfire effect, but because it offers no alternatives other than “hire people who share our preferences, and change yours while you’re at it.” Shevinsky and Van Vlack want to teach hiring managers and HR departments how to satisfice with candidates and employees, because supporting a diverse workforce means recognizing the unique characteristics of individuals and finding ways for them to thrive, not forcing people to conform to a single behavioral mold. They’re seeking $30,000, because making six half-hour videos with five people takes a lot more than three hours to do, and because they want to compensate the other women they’re working with fairly for their time.
Naturally, totalizing tech feminists can’t have this. If tech companies started improving their hiring processes in measurable ways, who would they have to verbally abuse on Twitter? Worse yet, who would pay them to proselytize? Whether it’s unintentional or deliberate, the self-sabotaging nature of conflict-affirming activism ensures the continued need for diversity consulting. Diversity consultants whose goal is to put their entire field out of business — even if it’s by solving the actual problem — are a threat to future bottom lines. And so the high-offense brigade kicked into gear. A few examples:
On the left, that’s Twitter user @haley retweeting the founder of both the aforementioned Ada Initiative and a feminist hackerspace at which doxing and public shaming are officially blessed activities. After purging some of its most high-profile members — healthy organizations do not undergo purges! — she shut the Ada Initiative down and went into business as, you guessed it, a diversity consultant. Note also the invocation of ideological cooties: the high offense-low defense, conflict-affirming “proud social justice warriors” of the games industry have successfully introduced “gamergater” into the popular lexicon as a term nominally for “person who supports online harassment,” but connotatively as “person to shun.” Shevinsky’s Lean Out sympathetically incorporates essays from noted anti-Gamergaters anna anthropy and Leigh “Gamers are over” Alexander, but since when have facts mattered to smear campaigners? Totalizing politics strikes again, flinging baseless accusations at everything that threatens its ideological frame and warning dissenters to shut up or be next on the firing line.
On the right is Erica Joy. Isn’t it interesting that both @haley and Joy work for addiction-driven browser-based IRC clone Slack, which competes with Shevinsky’s company Jekudo? One wonders whether Slack knows about its employees’ efforts in its public relations space, and if so, whether it condones them.
First-mover advantage is a huge leg up in any market, whether it’s for money, eyeballs, or social norms. Unfortunately for the low-offense people of the world, conflict-affirming groups dominated the field of gender and race issues in technology right out of the gate. Being a non-totalizing woman in the tech industry (and, increasingly, the sciences) has become a massive preference falsification game: having seen what can happen to people whom totalizing feminists can construe as having offended their sensibilities, non-totalizing low offense-low defense women keep their heads low for their own safety, while low offense-high defense women have to develop a keen sense of trustworthiness in order to distinguish other low-offense women from high-offense women who just haven’t attacked yet. Congratulations, totalizing feminists: you have made it more difficult for women to trust other women. Are you proud of yourselves?
But that victory is temporary. Cooperation, in the long run, eventually outcompetes those who wage the war of all against all — or some against all. If you’re someone who loves inclusiveness but hates the viciousness with which so many of its self-appointed champions savage whoever they consider the outgroup that day, this is your chance to help create an alternative. If you’re a company looking to improve communication and increase mutual respect among your teams, or hire more broadly, these are the folks you want to talk to. As Conway’s law predicts, what your organization produces will copy the communication structure of your organization. So you’re better off learning from people who teach cooperation rather than conflict.
And if you’re someone who’s tired of falsifying your preferences — you are not alone.