In a 2012 study at Indiana University–Bloomington, researchers found that the longer kids watched TV, the more their self-esteem dropped—with one exception: White boys actually gained confidence from their TV consumption. Girls’ and black boys’ self-confidence fell. It’s no wonder: When the people in power (in TV studios, but not just there) are still disproportionately white and male, a disproportionate share of interesting, successful, self-confident TV characters are likewise white and male.
That’s a lesson that the tech industry would do well to learn. Optics and subtle cues matter. If kids absorb lessons from who’s on TV, then the rest of us undoubtedly absorb messages from just about every app we touch. It’s true that the tech industry needs hiring managers who are bullish on building diverse teams and CEOs who make that a top priority. But even at the few tech companies that have appointed executive-level diversity chiefs, those leaders are candid about the sluggish pace of progress and the hurdles that remain.
There are simply a lot more people in the tech sector who build apps, design interfaces, and make creative decisions every single day than those who set diversity policies. If the industry is to attract more diverse talent, it first needs to expand the sense of whom it serves and represents–and that’s a task that ordinary tech workers can take up all by themselves.
The uptick in AI apps has meant videos featuring bespectacled white men getting receipts filed by Jennifers. Or Claras, or Julies. Or Alexas. The top search results for “avatar” on Dribbble are overwhelmingly white, male, and bearded. For the rest of us, it feels like we live in a tech boy-king’s world.
So at the same time that some companies tackle diversity from the top down, there’s still plenty that regular pixel pushers and bug fixers (bearded white men included) can do to widen the spectrum of people who can envision themselves as protagonists in the digital world–which includes working in it.
Amy Wibowo publishes a zine called BubbleSort, which wryly explains complex computing concepts like, “How Do Calculators Even.” “Too many technical resources assume the reader is a man; all the pronouns will be ‘he,’” she says. “In almost all of the exercises, stories, or examples in BubbleSort, I’ll have a woman’s or a gender-neutral name. I’ll also include math, science, and technology discoveries from outside the U.S./Europe—Ethiopian counting systems, Indian cryptography, Arabic discoveries in linguistics.”
For engineers, this means being more creative with examples in technical documentation. For those of us pushing pixels, Rizwan Javaid created a helpful Sketch plugin that generates names more inclusive than your typical Joe Smith, including African American names contributed by Kristy Tillman, design director at Society of Grownups.
Inclusiveness also extends to product imagery. Referring to marketing photos, Linda Eliasen, an illustrator at the digital agency UENO, tells me, “I’ve been seeing hands other than perfect skinny hands. Chubby hands, darker hands, painted nails—it’s a small thing, but we’ve been talking about it a lot.”
So have designers like Diogenes Brito, who created marketing materials for Slack last year that included an illustration of a brown hand. Though he first felt a little sheepish about it, Brito was astounded by the positive reaction. “Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of color who saw it?” he later reflected. “The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was.”
Other designers throughout the tech world are trying to make experiences like that less unusual. Facebook’s design team released a downloadable zipfile that makes this sort of inclusiveness easy. “We photographed these hands to help us keep in mind all the people around the world who will use our products,” they explained. The set includes brown and female hands, as well as devices besides the latest iPhone or Android smartphone.
On a deeper level, product heads should think more critically about including certain features. “Does everything need a commenting feature?” Sabrina Majeed, a design manager at BuzzFeed. By limiting them or leaving them out altogether, “Can we prevent harassment from happening in the first place?” Building products with “social” and “community” features may not actually serve a larger purpose that isn’t undermined by the online hate speech they enable–which often victimizes some users more than others. Simply following default UI patterns can prevent ugly situations from ever surfacing.
Casual conversations among ordinary tech workers can influence bigger decisions, too. “It’s not just about taking women and minorities out to dinner to mentor them or giving them access to strategy,” Karina van Schaardenburg, a user experience researcher at Lyft (whom I worked with at Twitter a few years ago), tells me. In an industry where lunches and coffee breaks tend to turn into heated debates about product, off-the-clock conversations can be an unintentional arena for exclusion.
“When decisions need to get made, who is your second or third opinion? Are you seeking out diverse opinions or just going to close friends for validation?” Van Schaardenburg says a little self-awareness, even when you think you’re just problem-solving, can go a long way: “Are you talking to the women about YouTube videos and talking to men about hard problems?”
Because these ultimately are never just user-centric decisions. They all wind up back at the same place where they start: within the walls of the companies that make them. It’s no accident that the entertainment industry has both a crappy diversity record and (improving but still pretty) crappy optics; women make up 46.3% of the U.S. working population in the U.S. but just 23.2% of the workers seen on screen. If you grow up watching TV shows that hurt your self-confidence, you’re less likely to want to make a TV show one day.
So if we’re serious about building a better world through technology and using it to elevate everyone into the modern era, we’ll need committed leaders at the top–but not just that. A greater share of the industry’s workforce can and should take more personal initiative. The pockets of deep, bold commitment we’ve seen at the upper ranks are encouraging, but we can’t wait for a handful of leaders to shift the entire industry.
Every day that we do, there’s a smart, ambitious kid left holding an iPhone with a screen whose contents barely reflect her. She’ll need a job one day. Let’s start making room for her now.