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Tech’s ethical problem is also a diversity problem

Bärí A. Williams argues that many of the ethical issues that tech companies wrestle with, from data breaches to gentrification, could be solved with a more diverse group of people making decisions.

Tech’s ethical problem is also a diversity problem
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Principles and profit are not mutually exclusive. The balance between being profitable and being principled is only as hard as a business leader makes it. Some in Silicon Valley think hiring a chief ethics officer will help save their company from their own potential missteps. However, I would posit that the larger issue links back to the lack of diversity at tech companies. Ethical issues are diversity issues.

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Diversity’s effect on tech companies, products, and practices

In recent weeks, we have seen more stories around tech companies having privacy and data breaches, more disinformation campaigns, funding companies through investments from questionable sources, and platforms hosting fake profiles and groups full of hate speech. All of these instances present ethical dilemmas for tech companies: Not just how to solve the current crisis, but how to mitigate future risks while not limiting rewards.
Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica fiasco from earlier this year revealed three things:

  1. When people are the product sold to advertisers, what users share can, and will, be used, and monetized, against them.
  2. Facebook doesn’t audit third parties on the site.
  3. If there were greater diversity in the room when decisions are made, some ethical issues could be identified before they escalate. The Cambridge Analytica voter depression and disinformation campaigns were only possible because no one was in the room with the ability to point out how marginalized groups would be impacted by use of their data. This is due to a focus on speed and shipping product, and not identifying or thinking through consequences for users in general, and minorities in particular. The absence of people of color from the decision-making process indicates the absence of thought around concerns and ramifications to these populations.

Diversity’s importance in the ethics of funding

Funding is another landmine of muddled morals. Investing in a company provides the investor with a say in how the money is used, and when the investor is of questionable repute, what the money funds may be viewed similarly. Early in October, it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, would be investing another $45 billion into SoftBank’s Vision Fund, bringing their total investment to $90 billion. Two weeks later, it was revealed that a journalist who was critical of the government was killed by the Saudi government in barbaric fashion in a foreign consulate, reportedly at the request of the Crown Prince. This begs the question of who is in the room when deciding what investments to take, and make, with Saudi money.

Decision makers with intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, familiarity with years of state-led Saudi human-rights violations, and understanding of how to do business with certain individuals would be worthwhile in this instance. It’s a moral conundrum to decide whether accepting blood money to fund a startup is worth the cost of doing business. But having someone with diverse experience and understanding of the nuances can help founders, and funders, make those decisions. Divest or invest? Be mindful that, as my mother says, “All money ain’t good money.”

Diversity’s impact on the ethics of changing communities

Diversity’s intersection with ethics doesn’t just apply to how platforms and products are financed and used. Companies should also take into account the great reverberations of gentrification, and displacement felt in communities once tech companies move in. As an Oakland native and current resident, the landscape of the Bay Area looks vastly different than when I was growing up here in the ’90s. Small locally owned shops, black-owned businesses, and even just black and brown people are now a scarcity, with artisan shops, indoor bocce ball bars, and hipster beer gardens in their place. The irony of this is that many of the new residents say they moved to the Bay Area, and Oakland specifically, for the culture.

In addition to the intangible cultural aspect of the soul of a changing city, there are actual financial consequences. The changing demographics of the population come with a heavy side of rising rents and cost of living increases. This is seen with tech billionaires fighting over tax increases in San Francisco, courtesy of Prop C. At issue is a ballot measure that would raise taxes on the city’s largest companies to fund homeless services, including housing, and addiction services.

The bigger the business, the more concentrated its employee base or revenue is in San Francisco, the higher a rate it will pay. On one side, Salesforce titan Marc Benioff supports the initiative, and Twitter and Square boss, Jack Dorsey, opposes it. Benioff advocates the measure, as he views homelessness and displacement as past the point of philanthropy, and the companies that are responsible for displacing some and enriching others has a moral obligation to provide assistance.

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There is also an economic answer to gentrification, big business, and financial equity in the tech sphere with company supplier diversity programs. I know because I created one at Facebook. Tech titans can demonstrate good corporate citizenship and investment in the communities they are entering by providing economic access and opportunity by doing business with those that already live there. This also ensures communities have a continuous cycle of job creation, and with sustained employment, there is less displacement.

Companies should proactively craft policies and programs that support marginalized communities, and incentivize employees to do business with local merchants of those communities. It validates the spending power and influence of those communities, and shows employees a dedication to marginalized communities, which could lead to greater retention of diverse employees in the process.

Tech’s answer to solving ethical quandaries is to ensure all voices are at the table when decisions are made. Homogenous rooms with little diverse representation will result in decisions born of complacency, privilege, unconscious and unchecked bias, and unacknowledged blind spots. That is a perfect storm for making unintentional unethical choices.

Want to solve for and prevent unprincipled pronouncements? Invite more diverse people to the table, and listen intently when they speak.


Bärí A. Williams is vice president of legal, policy, and business affairs at All Turtles. She previously served as head of business operations, North America for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook and created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.

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