Bridging the Digital Divide: The Politics of Silicon Valley // Politini

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In June, Politini brought our own Leanne Pittsford and Aliya Rahman to discuss the digital divide in technology. To listen to the full the interview, check it out here. 

Aisha & Danielle Moodie-Mills of Politini, a politics and pop culture radio show on blis.fm, and pen the blog Living, Loving, and Laboring OUT Loud, or threeLOL. This week they bring our own Leanne Pittsford, Founder and CEO, Lesbians Who Tech and Aliya Rahman, Program Director at Code for Progress to discuss “Bridging the Digital Divide: The Politics of Silicon Valley”

Moodie-Mills begin by noting that Silicon Valley has long been praised for its relaxed and campus like atmospheres, open working conditions, and flexibility while failing to notice and recognize the lack of diversity amongst its workers. Companies who have higher amounts of diversity have higher returns on investments are more likely to succeed in general yet the amount of backing from venture capital firms doesn’t seem to match this fact. Their main question in this interview episode is “will the digital diversity divide become the new normal?” Moodie-Mills both state that they hope it won’t and so they bring Pittsford and Rahman to the table.

Pittsford starts by introducing how Lesbians Who Tech was started and how it grew to be so large. Prior to starting Lesbians Who Tech Pittsford worked for Equality California on the “No to Prop 8” campaign and begun noticing that all of the events she attended were mostly white gay men and that her sector had a very hard time getting women and people of color to attend. She felt like there must be more lesbians and queer women who were in the tech world out there and so Lesbians Who Tech started hosting monthly happy hours. Quickly the monthly happy hours grew from one city and a couple hundred people to many cities and a community of 4,000 people. Lesbians Who Tech started to find that people wanted more value and a greater sense of community and so the first summit was hosted that brought a wide range of diversity and voices to the forefront. Pittsford notes that the summit had 40% queer women of color on stage as well as a wide range of ages and experiences and re-emphasizes that diversity amongst the tech field is out there and is needed if we are to stay on the cutting edge.

Moodie-Mills then turn the conversation to Rahman where they ask why Google has had such a problem admitting their diversity problem with recent reports showing that they employ only 30% women and 2% and 3% respectively being made up of black and hispanic people. Rahman believes that they hid their numbers for so long until they started to realize that other companies who had large amounts of diversity were getting praised for it and were starting to compete with the search giant. She notes that Google most likely realized that they were going to get societal pressure for having such weak numbers that they needed to have a plan as to how they were going to address it in order to keep PR and morale up. Rahman predicts that it is probably likely that Google has had no social justice folks involved in their company simply because often “tech companies think of themselves as tech companies.” Both Rahman and Pittsford say that larger tech companies have gotten themselves in a bind in terms of recruiting a diverse team of staff because many of their prospects come from Ivy league schools or intercompany referrals; and when you already have a mostly white staff, most of the referrals are also going to be white. The trio then turns to talking about how to be resourceful in hiring practices, they all agree that much of the problem is at the ground level in that many of the people they want to hire may not have had the same access that the traditional hirees have had.

Besides the problem with hiring practices, they all agree that we must change the way we interview and the ways we look at skills, they suggest that instead of asking only about “hard skills” that the tables must be turned to value “soft skills.” Some questions that were proposed were, “tell me about a time when you worked on a gender justice project or a racial justice project?” as well as about big topics such as racism, and misogyny in the work place. Pittsford says that when she is recruiting people to speak she often has to go look for people of color, they normally don’t apply. She says the key for her is seeking them out and “showing up” for them in their lives and show them that you value who they are and what they are doing in the world. She recalls a time when she was on a board that had no people of color and only a few women and the other board members were shocked when no women or people of color applied for the executive director role. She says the key is to value diversity in the organization from the beginning because it is much harder to overcome the diversity problem once an organization is already established.

The trio agrees that tech world needs to evolve from “diversity for diversity’s sake” to having real value and equal value for those. Pittsford recounts that many queer women in the Lesbians Who Tech community have approached being shocked how welcoming this community has been while noting how simultaneously hesitant they were to show up in the first place. Their hesitance was based on the fact that they have felt unwelcome in similar spaces before and are uninterested in feeling that again.

Moodie-Mills then turn the conversation to pop culture and ask if the tech community needs a Olivia Pope, a female, person of color protagonist in ABC’s popular TV show Scandal, to create a culture change. Rahman thinks it might, in recruiting people for her program which teaches people who have no previous tech experience how to code, she finds that people only know about the profession because of white heterosexual males. In order to make it a possibility in people’s minds, the accessibility needs to be opened. Pittsford exuberantly shares that Rahman could be that Olivia Pope character the tech world needs. Moodie-Mills asks Pittsford and Rahman about cultivating a curiosity in girls entering the tech field, “What can K-12 schools do to encourage girls to go into the tech field?” Pittsford says that many organizations such as Black Girls Code and Code for Progress have made great strides in infiltrating school systems however, she thinks it must come from further up, the federal government. America as a country has got to start focusing funds and energy into tech education in schools or we will fail to thrive as a country. Moodie-Mills both note that we need switch our thinking from keeping tech and civics and art separate subject areas and bridge them into working together. Rahman says in her program, Code for Progress she has some extraordinary back-end programmers that are DJs and visual artists because they think differently.

The group then turns to talking about representation and the relationship to politics and technology. They all agree that policies in the US are built around the white middle class heterosexual male patriarchy as the norm and when policies don’t suit that group then there is a problem within government. However, this norm is one of the things that keeps people of diversity out of politics, people don’t want to enter an arena in which they don’t see people that look like them. Moodie- Mills both push the fact that the diverse voices that are in tech should consider at one point in their life running for a public office. They close out with the suggestion that we as a tech community should stop using the phrase “who is going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg?” because it closes of the possibility of diversity and opportunity.