We are constanmtly being innundated with evidence that there are powerful systemic biases in our industry and in our society. For example, even if qualified men were to significantly outnumber qualified women, what are the odds that aconference would only have male speakers?1
If we accept that this is true, the question becomes, so what should we do about it? I was provoked to write this essay by reading Ed Weissman saying that “life is unfair,” and exhorting people (in so many words) to HTFU and get on with overcoming their personal adversity through hard work:
Life is unfair, especially in Silicon Valley. It’s not about the unfairness, it’s about our response to the unfairness. There has never been a better time and a better way to succeed than building software today. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re at, what you’re like, what you have, or who you’re with. 95% of the battle is what you can do. So go do it.–edw519 on Hacker News
But I’m also painfully aware that although life is unfair, it needn’t be this unfair, and progress as a society has only been made by people being so dissatisfied with its unfairness that they put aside all thought of their personal gain and became activists.
Leonard, Gwen, and Reginald overcame systemic colour and class discrimination to become successful in their chosen fields. They did not listen to naysayers who said they couldn’t achieve in life. From their example, we can draw the conclusion that it is possible to be a success regardless of the colour of your skin or your gender. From examples like Jodie Foster and Tim Cook, we conclude that the same is true of sexual orientation.
There are probably excellent examples of overcoming adverse systemic bias for other marginal groups. It seems to be the case that if you want to succeed, the very best strategy is to set about being successful, not to allow discrimination and systemic bias to intimidate you into not even trying.
The fact that it is possible to overcome adversity in the face of systemic bias does not mean that systemic bias doesn’t exist. It does not mean that systemic bias is morally acceptable. It does not mean that systemic bias isn’t harmful to the group as a whole.
Consider a hypothetical company, SellCo: SellCo sells stuff, and their revenues and profits are directly correlated with the performance of their salespeople. Naturally, they are always hiring, and they receive an equal number of male and female applicants for jobs. Those men that display aptitude are given outside sales positions.
Those women that display aptitude are given inside sales positions. Outside sales is more critical, and pays much better. Women are not hired directly into outside sales positions, they must first display prodigious ability as an inside sales person before being considered for a promotion to outside sales.
This setup does make it possible for women to become successful outside salespeople, but only if they are also successful inside salepeople. It’s a related, but not identical skill set.
If we ask anyone at SellCo about its policies, we might be told that everything is fine. There are no “false positives,” everyone in outside sales is productive. There are no allegations of nepotism, of incompetent men being hired. All the women in outside sales are truly exceptional, with an expert grasp of both selling to accounts, and of working with inside sales to manage those accounts.
This is “survivor bias,” of course. All the great saleswomen who were passed over for being hired directly into outside sales have moved along and work for the competition. And if any woman at SellCo is grumbling about the situation, she’s probably “just” an inside salesperson, and not an amazing inside salesperson at that.
So what’s the best advice for a woman joining the company? It’s simple: Shoot the lights out in inside sales, apply for a job in outside sales, and then shoot the lights out there. That’s the path to success. What’s good for women at SellCo is to focus on sales, not on what’s wrong with SellCo’s practices.
This is true of our hypothetical company SellCo, and it’s usually true in other systems with a bias problem. The best advice for each individual is to work within the system. And examples like Leonard, Gwen, and Reginald are offered as evidence that working within the system is the path to success.
But what’s good for a saleswoman is not necessarily what’s good for SellCo. Some women will have outside sales skills, but either not get hired as inside salespeople, or languish as middle-of-the-road inside salespeople. Or quit and work somewhere else that recognizes their ability. Or not work for SellCo in the first place. The net result is that the company does not have the best possible selection of outside salespeople promoting its products and services.
Likewise, it might be in in individual’s best interests to buckle down and succeed in the face of adverse conditions, but not be in the community’s best interests to tolerate those adverse conditions. The interests of the community as a whole are often best served by encouraging more people to contribute, and by removing obstacles for contribution.
The bottom line is that the best strategy for success for an individual within a system with bias is not neccessarily aligned with the best strategy for the system as a whole.
Working to be successful improves your personal lot. Working to remove systemic obstruction improves the lot of people for generations to come.
When people argue about this point, it’s often the case that one person is arguing what is and isn’t best for the individual. While the other is arguing what is and isn’t best for a larger group, like a conference, or a company, or the Technology Industry, or North American society.
Both people are right by their own objectives, but can be violently disagreeing about what’s important and what to do. This explains why people violently resist changing communities.
For example, the right thing to do for an individual when submitting a pull request to an open source project might be to thicken their skin and not take criticism personally, even if that’s what the critic intended. Anyone who has internalized this heuristic sees no need for the community to adopt a code of conduct around keeping criticism impersonal. And if you value code, working on a code of conduct seems to be time not working on code. So the natural impulse is to resist.
I empathize with this response. I don’t agree, because I understand that while a code of conduct is uncessary for people who have internalized this strategy, it will draw more contributors and more contributions for the community as a whole. Once again, the best strategy for success for an individual within a community is not neccessarily aligned with the best strategy for the community as a whole.
So in the end, my advice is to decide what matters to you. If it’s to write a certain type of program, I suggest you just get started. If it’s to get a certain type of job, I suggest you get to work on the necessary qualifications, and then apply. If it’s to start a company, well, I suggest you HTFU and get started.
But if what matters to you is that your conference become better, or your company, or your open source community, or our industry, or our society, well, then, I advise you to become an activist. Agitate. Make trouble. Do not settle for playing the game by the rules you are given.
Life is unfair, and will always be unfair, but it can be made less unfair. So if that’s what you want, well, HTFU and get started on that, too. The bottom line is that the rules for the right thing to do for the individual, do not scale to the right thing to do for the community.
Leonard Austin Braithwaite, CM OOnt (October 23, 1923 – March 28, 2012) was a lawyer and former politician in Ontario, Canada. He received a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Toronto in 1950. He then received a Masters of Business Administration degree from the Harvard Business School in 1952, and graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1958. He served in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as a member of the Liberal Party from 1963 to 1975. He was the first Black Canadian to be elected to the Ontario Legislature. ↩
Reginald F. Lewis (December 7, 1942 – January 19, 1993), was an American businessman. He was the richest African-American man in the 1980s. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. He won a football scholarship to Virginia State College, graduating with a degree in economics in 1965. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1968 and was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. In 1992, Forbes listed Lewis among the 400 richest Americans, with a net worth estimated at $400 million. He also was the first African American to build a billion dollar company, Beatrice Foods. ↩