What Does “Inclusion” Mean In Silicon Valley?

Diverse women

I am both the beloved friend and worst enemy of the inclusion work of Silicon Valley. The dichotomy of these two realities feels strange to me, but not unfamiliar. As a black man from Compton and accomplished software engineer, I have experienced the privileges rarely achieved by people that come from underprivileged backgrounds. I feel included. But as a Protestant and Reformed Christian, the microaggressions I have suffered reminds me that my faith bears little value in the tech world. There is no space for my religious identity when I read between the lines of Silicon Valley’s prevailing narrative of inclusion. I am neither resentful nor surprised by this fact. But the disparate experiences I’ve encountered as a black man and a Christian make me wonder—what is the real goal of inclusion?

The idea of inclusion is more enigmatic than people care to admit. Not everyone even means the same thing when they use the word. And no, the dictionary is not much of a help. Merriam Webster defines inclusion as “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” But what does this mean for tech? What is this group that we want to make more inclusive? What does a diverse and inclusive Silicon Valley look like?

For those not in the know, the great promise of inclusion in tech is that companies will benefit from a more innovative workforce and the competitive advantages that come with it. This stands upon the understanding that innovation requires people to think differently about challenges and see opportunities that competitors have missed. Having diverse perspectives at the table fosters the right conditions for innovation to occur. Building teams around people of differing backgrounds and worldviews enables the collaboration that otherwise would not occur in strictly homogenous groups.

But how does a company know when it is diverse enough to reap these benefits? Suppose this occurs when its workforce reflects the demographics of its customers. This idea is attractive because it is customer-focused and measurable. Suppose that we only look at the racial demographics in America as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau. Companies might target a racial/ethnic breakdown of 62% white, 13% black, 5% Asian, and 17% Hispanic or Latinx of any race. The gender breakdown should split 50–50 between male and female. Assuming that a company achieves those numbers, would they be diverse enough?

So far, I have implied that racial, ethnic, and gender classes are the most important targets of inclusion. Many in tech believe this. But what about the inclusion of other groups? Consider political preference, for instance. According to Pew Research, 40% of Americans consider themselves independent (as I do). Democrats account for 30% of the population, while 24% identify as Republican. And what about religion? Christians make up 70% of the U.S. population. Another 23% of Americans do not affiliate themselves with any religion. The remaining 7% are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.

These other types of diversity are not a high priorities in today’s debates and forums on inclusion. This is because we have learned to draw a distinction between intrinsic and acquired diversity traits. Intrinsic traits are those you cannot change, like your skin color. Acquired traits, such as your political party, are those you pick up at some point in life and are changeable. We esteem intrinsic attributes of diversity as more important than acquired ones. We weigh race and gender diversity with more urgency.

Numerous reasons exist that cause this to be true. For race, the increasing national focus on police shootings of unarmed black men has helped to keep race front and center. Given America’s deeply bitter racial past, it’s hard to deny that racial bias in tech is an important issue to address. Also, If tech can empower the historically disenfranchised, perhaps even saving lives, then that would be a significant value proposition. I stand a greater chance of getting shot for being black in this country than for being a Christian (for now), I see good reason to make racial diversity a top priority.

Yet this prioritization of certain types of diversity over others results in imbalances. For instance, if a company wants to attract more black workers, it pays to be left-leaning. That’s because 80% of African Americans affiliate with the Democratic party. But the adverse side effect of this left-leaning is that it creates an environment indifferent, if not hostile, towards conservative employees. Discussions between some of my colleagues suggest this is exactly what has happened in Silicon Valley. They experience, to a lesser extent, the same microaggressions and hostility that racial and ethnic groups experience. Would we who advocate for diversity and inclusion accept this reality? Should we settle for the inclusion of some at the expense of the exclusion of others?

I get it. Progressives accuse conservatives of combating the work of diversity and inclusion. I am sure plenty of racists and bigots hide under the banner of conservatism. I also know that progressives do not corner the market on justice and equity. The fact remains that Silicon Valley lacks empathy for those who disagree with the prevalent progressive viewports. As a result, some vilify conservatives in ways that seem all too familiar to me as a black American. I worry that, for all the work achieved to make Silicon Valley more inclusive, we will end up including new groups at the cost of excluding others.

I love the work that I do as an advocate for diversity and inclusion. It is work vital to future of tech and to the next generation of diverse innovators and leaders. I dream of a Silicon Valley that truly includes everyone, even those with whom I disagree. I dream of one more inclusive of my whole self—my race, my ethnicity, and my faith.