Tech & Inclusion Series: Promoting “Inclusiveness by Design”

Written by G.S. Hans

Last week, Ali discussed technology and inclusiveness in the context of product design, using dating sites as a particularly illustrative example of how gender dynamics come into play. As she noted, services that consider the range of users — rather than those users most similar to the product developers — are more likely to successfully retain a broad swath of the population. Being inclusive from the earliest stages of workforce and product development will almost certainly help promote products and companies in our society.

The uninspiring record of technology companies on diversity staffing is well known, though there are efforts to improve it. One of the more successful movements has coalesced around increasing the representation of women in tech companies and creating a welcoming space for women in the community, including campaigns like Girls Who Code. Increasing the proportion of women to more accurately reflect the society in which we live is of crucial importance. The recent Gamergate controversy demonstrates the dismal climate for women in the tech world, in which harassment and threats are disturbingly commonplace.

It’s not just women that remain underrepresented within technology companies, however. Racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and individuals with disabilities are also often woefully underrepresented within tech companies. A diverse workforce would ideally include individuals from all of these groups at a range of levels, from senior management to entry-level employees.

As an Indian-American gay man, diversity among my colleagues is important for me to feel individually empowered in my job.

For many Americans, myself included, diversity is an end goal in and of itself. This point was repeatedly made in the 2003 Supreme Court affirmative action cases (Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger), perhaps most powerfully by a group of then-current and former military officers who argued that diversity was essential to promoting the military’s mission to protect national security. By having a diverse workplace, the goals of any organization — corporate, military, non-profit, or otherwise — are more easily realized. Diversity in staffing helps to promote a supportive work environment that reflects the world at large; as an Indian-American gay man, diversity among my colleagues is important for me to feel individually empowered in my job. For technology companies with an increasingly global focus, diversity can help bridge the gap between a company’s headquarters and the world at large.

Ali’s blog pointed to the fact that staffing diversity can also help create products that appeal to the population at large, rather than just a subgroup similar to the product developers. Beyond that goal, diversity can also increase consumer trust in products. Consumers from minority groups will feel more confident in products that are released by companies that take steps, through staffing and development, to understand the needs of minority communities and craft their services accordingly. The recent controversy regarding Facebook’s policies towards real names and how it applied to drag queens demonstrates the value of including minority communities when designing products. By responding to the concerns of the drag community, Facebook was able to more effectively design its service for its users. The lesson here is clear: considering the needs of minority communities in advance is vital, and is most easily and effectively achieved by including members of communities in their workforce.

The trust that minority communities have in the tech industry has also been important in the big data context. The release of the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data, which CDT has signed on to, highlights the need to promote trust between minority communities that have been historically disadvantaged by anonymous decision making and the providers that hope to use big data to increase efficiencies and opportunities for individuals. Given our nation’s recent history of discrimination in lending and insurance, minority communities have good reason to be concerned about the automated decision-making that big data facilitates. Beyond hiring practices, there are other ways for companies to address lack of diversity in their workforce.

One way that companies can proactively reach out to minority communities is to institute a practice I’ve thought of as “inclusiveness by design.” For many companies, “privacy by design” is a concept so familiar as to be second-nature: by thinking about privacy and security at the earliest stages of product development, companies can be more confident that their products will protect consumer privacy in meaningful ways, follow strong security measures, and assure consumers that their data is being protected.

Similarly, inclusiveness by design can be a way for companies to promote diversity and communicate to the public that they have recognized and understood the needs of minority communities when developing their products and workforces. This can take the form of allowing individuals to choose non-binary gender options, as Facebook has done, or committing to increasing diversity among its staff, as Google did when releasing its workforce demographics. The most obvious way for companies to promote inclusiveness by design is to have a diverse workforce, and allow diverse teams to work on products and outreach to communities. Diversity in staffing is not just an admirable goal in and of itself. It is also a way for companies to communicate to a diverse population that they understand the needs of individuals, and are committed to realizing the promise that technology offers of creating a more egalitarian society.

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