An implicit network, not overt racism, keeps tech writing dominated by white men.
This article was first published in The Magazine, Issue 7
Click through to the “about” page of any technology magazine, website, or blog, and you often find individual or group pictures of the staff and regular contributors. What’s noticeable is so in its absence: You find precious few brown people.
The quantity isn’t zero, of course. Quite a few people of color have high-level postings. Jenna Wortham, for instance, covers technology for The New York Times, and Gautham Nagesh writes the Technology Executive Briefing for CQ in Washington, D.C. But it’s easy enough to tick off examples and ignore the statistics.
The writers at Macworld are mostly white and mostly male, and a glance at staff photos at websites like The Next Web, The Verge, Engadget reveals few people of color. The Magazine has its own issues with diversity; of the 26 people who contributed to the first six issues, 22 were white men.
[Author's note: I'm afraid I unintentionally misrepresented The Verge here. It's important to note that its managing editor, Nilay Patel, is Indian American, and that the photo featured on its webpage was taken more than a year ago, and not at all indicative of its current staff make-up.]
If the majority of technology users belonged to a select demographic group, this would make more sense, but that’s not the case at all: Gadgets are used by everyone. African Americans and Latinos, for example, are huge Internet users. They use Twitter and Facebook at higher rates than whites, they’re the most likely to use their cell phones for Internet usage, and the cell phones they buy are — for the most part — smartphones.
According to the most recent Pew Research survey of operating system share by race or ethnicity, 15 percent of African Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics who own smartphones use iOS, while 27 percent of both use Android. And while it’s hard to know for sure, blacks and Latinos are almost certainly a significant part of the 50 percent of U.S. households that own an Apple product.
So why aren’t more of them writing about tech?
“In the aggregate, tech writing is initially and for the most part filled with white guys,” says Tim Carmody, a full-time technology news writer, who has worked at several publications, and is a critic of this lack of diversity. It’s hard to dispute this, but there are important nuances.
If by “people of color” we’re referring to individuals of South Asian and Southeast Asian descent, an ample number contribute to technology publications. In fact, it would be surprising if that weren’t the case. California is home to one of the largest, most established Asian communities in the country, and Asian Americans play a substantial role in the tech scene of Silicon Valley.
There are problems of access and representation, but in general, Asian-American bylines are easy to find among tech sites and magazines. In no way does this discount the real problems of access and representation for Asian Americans, but compared to African Americans and Latinos, they have much more representation in technology journalism.
If the term “people of color” is narrowed to mean just African Americans and Latinos, then yes, in the world of tech writing, they are few and far between.
Some of this has to do with the geography of the field. California’s large Latino population is a relatively recent development, and California has never had a large African-American community. According to the latest Census data, blacks represent just 6.6 percent of the Golden State’s population, compared to 13.1 percent for the country as a whole. What’s more, these communities were not concentrated in the towns and cities where tech culture grew and developed, nor did they have access to the pioneering companies and institutions of the field.
“If you’re focused on the Silicon Valley region and that specific ‘flavor’ of technology,” says Tameka Kee, a journalist covering digital media, “then you will be hard-pressed to find a large percentage of black entrepreneurs, reporters, etc.”
One would hope that publications based in cities with a great number of blacks and Hispanics — like New York City, Atlanta, or Chicago — would then see more diversity within their staffs. Yet that isn’t true for three prominent tech publications founded in New York City: The Verge, Engadget, and Gizmodo. (You could argue that these drew initially from the same pool of San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley reporters, but Gizmodo has been in operation for a decade.)
Affording an unpaid job
But geography isn’t the only explanation for why African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented in the world of tech writing. The roots of this problem lie in more fundamental racial disparities that are found across American life. “Careers and career paths in technology are often integrated in a kid’s DNA to some respect,” says Kee. “Having a mom and dad that have gone to college, being exposed to the workings of technology — not just the consumption and purchase of it — all help contribute to an interest in ‘tech’ as a career. As it stands, black kids are still less likely to have those influences.”
It’s not hard to understand why: African-American and Latino children are still more likely than their white counterparts to live in impoverished neighborhoods, go to poorly equipped schools, and live in low-income households. If Bill Gates had been born black in the Seattle of 1955, Microsoft might never have been founded.
Culture Milk’s co-founder Nate Boateng explains that minority students may not have the resources to afford unpaid internships and other jobs that provide a valuable path to jobs in media. “Minority students on campus — whom I’ve talked to about this — always claim that they simply can’t afford to not get paid for a whole summer,” he says.
Of course, there are plenty of blacks and Hispanics who come from middle-class families. But even they face obstacles unseen by their white counterparts. Many college graduates of color are the first from their families to obtain degrees. There is perceived and real pressure to enter more traditional professions, like law and medicine. In addition to not providing income, unpaid jobs carry a lot of risk: There’s no guarantee they will lead to something greater. This combination of familial and financial pressure means that some kids of color — even if they can afford to — don’t feel that they have the freedom to apply to unpaid media jobs and internships. [Author's note: Unpaid internships aren't universal. Some publications, like The Verge, offer compensation.]
A good analogue for this is traditional political journalism, which, like technology writing, has publications with staffs that are heavily white and heavily male, despite the large number of blacks, Latinos, women, and other defined groups who work in politics. In a post called “The Economics of Magazines and Diversity,” Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates described some of the problems with access in the magazine world. “The traditional way of breaking into magazines involve[s] ways utterly inaccessible to most black people. The unpaid internship was long seen as a [rite] of passage. Very few Americans can afford such a luxury, and fewer still African Americans can afford it.”
Networking plays a big role
There’s an immediate rejoinder to all of this: “The internet is an open, fluid place! If black and Hispanic writers want to make a name for themselves, all they have to do is write well — and often — and someone will find them.”
Of course, for people of exceptional talent, this is true. But it’s important to recognize the barriers to entry that exist in the community, or put differently, the ways in which the obvious path doesn’t always work for people of color. To start, many writers of color lack an insider connection: They don’t necessarily have the social status or networks needed to break into tech journalism.
And despite the dominance of tech reporting and gadgets sites, there are relatively few tenable staff jobs or full-time freelancers working in the field — perhaps no more than a few thousand, if that, in the United States. Thus the competition is fierce, even if that competition is hidden from view.
“Most of the dominant tech blogs are run by a very small number of men, and they’ve tended to hire from their familiar circle of connections to staff their teams,” says Anil Dash, tech entrepreneur-cum-writer. Insofar that they take an open approach to recruiting, he explains, it can “take the form of ‘we found a great writer in our own comments!’” Which is a problem, given how many people are turned away by the endemic racism and sexism of Internet comment threads.
And then there’s the actual culture of the tech trade press, which has a fair number of often-unacknowledged blind spots. The most prominent voices of the Apple blogging community, for instance — John Gruber, Marco Arment, Jim Dalrymple, Jason Snell, Shawn Blanc, Stephen Hackett, John Siracusa, and so on — are all white men.
This doesn’t taint their opinions, but it does limit aspects of their perspective. For example, some initially raised concerns of exclusivity about App.net: Would a pay-only social network exclude people with things to say but without the money to say it? Moreover, would it disproportionately affect people of color, in effect creating a gated community and — if App.net became popular — possibly simulating the real-life white flight of previous decades?
On podcasts, in blog posts, and on Twitter, the idea was hand-waved away as ludicrous — “I’m just joining this because I’m a geek, not because I want to get away from black people” — but we live in a world of racial disparities, and those have implications for the things we do online. The conversation about race and App.net was one worth having, but was unfortunately dismissed.
The homogeneity of the tech trade press even affects who links to whom. “Much of what the tech world decides to link to is based on back-scratching relationships among a cohort that’s profoundly unaware of its privilege,” says Dash. “Even the language of The Magazine, which explicitly said it’s for ‘geeks like us’ while not featuring any writers of color (and only one woman) in its first dozen-plus stories, makes clear that many of us are not meant as ‘core’ contributors or members of a community.”
This isn’t sinister. Indeed, I think it stems from something admirable: an ethos of color-blindness in the broader tech community, which comes from the conviction that technology allows us to look past the things that have divided us. That attitude is often expressed as: “No one cares what you look like if you can code well.”
As Tim Carmody puts it, “There is a broad ideological sense shared among people in and around Silicon Valley and its satellites that we’re in a post-racial, post-discriminatory world, that talent is scarce and you have to hire it wherever you find it, regardless of race or gender.”
The problem is that we don’t live in a post-racial, post-discriminatory world, and acting as if we do can reproduce the same inequalities that we should want to avoid.
So, what can we do?
It’s tempting to dismiss this problem as out of our control — that until we fix the background inequality, there’s no use in trying to remedy the real problems of representation within the tech press.
I think that’s the wrong approach. For as much as there are broader, societal issues at work here, there are also things the tech community can do to provide and promote more diverse voices.
The first thing is for tech writers to show that they’re aware of the problem. Conversations around race (and gender) can be painful and awkward, but they’re also necessary; technology is changing our world and culture at an incredible pace. Those who cover it have a responsibility to do so in a way that’s inclusive and supportive.
There are already people and groups outside the mainstream of technology writing who are having these conversations. Latoya Peterson, a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University who is focusing on mobile technology and digital access, recently wrote about the town-car service Uber, and how it has unintentionally provided an alternative to people of color who are profiled and excluded by traditional taxi services. Her website, Racialicious, is a roving discussion on race and culture, and an excellent forum for these topics. There’s no reason others can’t also join the fray.
Another thing is for writers and publications to adopt diversity as a goal. As Dash puts it, “By simply looking around to see if our media world looks like the real world, these are all issues we can address.”
National Public Radio, for example, has been working for the last year to diversify its newsroom, with some success: 23 percent of NPR’s reporters, editors, producers, and managers are people of color, compared to just 7 percent for radio in general, and 13 percent for daily newspapers. This even compares favorably with the general population. People of color make up 28 percent of all adults, and 20 percent of all college graduates.
Obviously, The Verge or Macworld or The Magazine can’t invest the resources of NPR. And it’s not enough to declare an “open to all comers” approach. This sounds like it should work, but like color-blind policies in college admissions, it could end up replicating existing inequalities. When assigning pieces, editors need to take inventory, and if there are too few women writers and writers of color, seek them out.
Why should we worry about diversity when gadgets and trends are the same regardless of who is writing about them? Easy. The what and how of coverage are affected by who is doing the covering. If more women were covering technology, for example, the tech press might have noticed the rapid growth of Pinterest at an earlier point.
Put another way, the community of people who use and love technology is large and diverse. We should want the community of people who write about it to mirror that diversity. We have nothing to lose, and a huge wealth of perspectives and experiences to gain.
Discovered by looking at bylines for every article on the homepage for a week. ↩
Editors’ note: We’ve since dropped that motto, but Dash’s point remains valid. ↩
In cities like D.C., cab drivers regularly and illegally refuse fares to certain neighborhoods, or don’t stop if a patron flagging a cab down is black or brown. Uber takes all fares to all addresses within its reference area, and doesn’t “red line,” an often illegal practice of blocking out services (such as grocery delivery or transportation) to predominantly African-American parts of cities. ↩
Editor’s note: When I attempted to highlight Pinterest after I discovered that all my female friends were using it, it was nearly impossible to avoid gratuitously misogynous responses on Twitter.-gf ↩