Minorities, Women Treated Like Outsiders in Silicon Valley

Apple employees walk between buildings at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011, a day after Apple co-founder Steve Jobs announced his resignation. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (National Journal)

Despite emotional arguments from both inside and out of Silicon Valley that the tech world's meritocracy obsession comes with the best intentions, there are increasing calls from actual female and minority start-up employees inside the bubble who suggest very much the opposite — that outsiders are kept out, and on purpose, under the guise of inclusiveness. In Silicon Valley, it appears, start-up culture has actually reinforced its own glass ceiling.

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The conventional wisdom has it that Silicon Valley really, truly wants to be a meritocracy but that it just can't. Some think the start-up world suffers from an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos because of other institutionalized barriers to entry, such as access to education. Or that women just aren't interested. However, a new essay being passed around this week, written by San Francisco programmer Shanley Kane, suggests that there is a prevalent — and ingrained — sense of intentional exclusion. "A world of startup privilege hides blithely unexamined underneath an insipid, self-reinforcing banner of meritocracy and funding," writes Kane, a product management director at the open-source data start-up Basho, going on to explain how Silicon Valley uses the grand excuse of "culture" to keep certain employees out. For example, when a start-up says "we make sure to hire people who are a cultural fit," Kane says that really means something more like this:

We have implemented a loosely coordinated social policy to ensure homogeneity in our workforce. We are able to reject qualified, diverse candidates on the grounds that they "aren't a culture fit" while not having to examine what that means - and it might mean that we're all white, mostly male, mostly college-educated, mostly young/unmarried, mostly binge drinkers, mostly from a similar work background. We tend to hire within our employees' friend and social groups. Because everyone we work with is a great culture fit, which is code for "able to fit in without friction," we are all friends and have an unhealthy blur between social and work life. Because everyone is a "great culture fit," we don't have to acknowledge employee alienation and friction between individuals or groups. The desire to continue being a "culture fit" means it is harder for employees to raise meaningful critique and criticism of the culture itself.

In other words, the totally acceptable, non-offensive C-word makes all the exclusionary circle-jerking okay. The brogrammers want to hang out with other brogrammers, so they only hire other brogrammers. And once you have a company full of white men, it's harder to make others feel welcome. Culture!

Of course, Kane represents just one voice, with one experience, but more of the excluded are coming out about Silicon Valley's "culture" as cross-dressed in sheep's clothing. For example, last week when the start-up educators at the Kahn Academy noted the number of women in its incoming intern class with a celebratory blog post, commenters called it "discrimination in action," "disappointing," and "sexist", as Kahn Academy developr Ben Kamens pointed out in a post of his own.

In other words, Silicon Valley's culture of meritocracy means that any effort to change this so-called society of equality — which happens to favor a certain set of people — suggests some sort of "discrimination" threatening the start-up ideal. Indeed, the unspoken conventional wisdom sounds more like this: The tech sphere rewards only the most talented workers, even if the phrase "most talented" is completely subjective. (Kamens, who has put together several intern classes for the Kahn Academy, even admits the phrase "best developers" has become "meaningless.")

Perhaps Silicon Valley's real culture problem is its obsession with the concept of culture in and of itself. Kane continues:

Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly.

That even applies to a well-intentioned culture of meritocracy, which — either earnestly or not — believes in letting the invisible hand populate its companies. At this point in its relatively young history, Silicon Valley may have become so obsessed with a meritocracy that it has turned into not so much a new hub for hiring as a kind of teenage old-boys' club. Kamens says as much: "It doesn't help to be an industry obsessed with meritocracy if the first reaction to an altered status quo is that OUR MERITOCRACY MUST BE BROKEN, SOUND THE ALARMS. That's an a-hole old-timer's club."

Many other anecdotes (as well as data) of the excluded demographics in the tech world hammer home the reality of a jaded industry: too many productive and beneficial workers from minorities have been left out. So, too, apparently, has the idea that Silicon Valley can still break things.

Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments or send an email to the author atrgreenfield@theatlantic.com. You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.