Somebody at Twitter thought it was a good idea to throw a frat-theme happy hour last month for some of its workers, complete with beer pong, red plastic cups and kegs, as if waxing nostalgic for the glory days of male campus life.
The problem with the party isn’t just its symbolic power as Twitter works to resolve a sex-discrimination suit. The problem runs deeper, because it illustrates the boys’ club culture — and often the white boys’ culture — that telegraphs to women and minorities that they belong on the margins of the business. This culture is not unique to the tech industry, as there is a long tradition in newsrooms of nostalgia about the golden age when newsmen drank and smoked as they banged out superlative copy. Hard news, it was believed, was the ultimate masculine pursuit, and in some ways, that thinking hasn’t changed. If tech and media are truly willing to make their workplaces more equitable, there is a means to do it.
It would be easy to say that the decision-makers at Twitter and in most tech companies are unthinking, but the reality is that gender, sex and minority bias in companies, including in the news media, tends to be more subtle but no less insidious. It’s often an unconscious affair that involves split-second thinking and assumptions we make about groups of people who are not like us. This old boys’ culture is replicated in industries across the country.
Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review released a study done by a doctoral student from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Alex T. Williams found that the most common reason news organizations gave for the lack of diversity in their ranks was the dearth of qualified people of color. But then he looked at the percentage of people of color who recently completed degrees in journalism. The numbers didn’t square.
According to the American Society of News Editors, which has been conducting the newsroom diversity census since 1978 and just released its 2015 figures, minorities make up 12.8 percent of newsrooms. This number has stayed relatively stagnant over the last eight years, but it hit a peak at 13.7 percent in 2006. The numbers in broadcast media are not much different. Yet based on an annual survey of college graduates in journalism and mass communication — the Grady College Survey — minorities made up about 21 percent of journalism or communications graduates in 2013. Women haven’t quite made it either. While they made up 73 percent of graduates in the field in 2013, they made up 36 percent of the news editorial staff in newspapers that year, according to the Women’s Media Center.
Even so, the numbers in the news media are better than those we see in most tech companies. Twitter’s diversity numbers from last year found that women made up 10 percent of tech jobs. And while Asians made up 34 percent of tech jobs at Twitter, Latinos and African Americans made up a total of 4 percent. Should tech companies look to news media companies for answers? Not necessarily. Most of the efforts over the decades to improve diversity in newsrooms haven’t budged the needle much. But we have new tools in hand, and with the common intersection of tech and media, working together might bring about a different result.
With emerging research on unconscious bias, we now understand so much more about how bias can play out in the workplace without intention. One initial step companies can take is conducting a blind review of resumes. There are many other remedies, but first companies have to commit to the idea that diversity isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. One need only look at the changing demographics of America to know that neither tech nor media can afford to disenfranchise the very people it’s catering to.
This opinion piece ran originally in the San Francisco Chronicle Aug. 3, 2015.