Chun: Diversity’s Commodification

A story from Uber shows that progress can be stalled by perverse incentives.

by Steven Chun | 2/23/17 12:20am

This past Sunday, author and software engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post detailing a horror story of sexual harassment and corporate failure at Uber, the massive ridesharing company. Fowler, who now works at the payment processing company Stripe, had worked for a year as a site-reliability engineer at Uber. A cursory look at her personal website quickly reveals that she’s — to use the industry buzzword — a “rockstar.”

With degrees from Stanford University, Arizona State University and the University of Pennsylvania and two published books on production microservices, Fowler is the kind of devoted engineer Silicon Valley worships. I list off her qualifications because her story is so ludicrously damning that it’s almost hard to believe. While it’s a personal blog post and not a news report, Fowler is no joke, and her credentials are rock solid. The story she tells, however, puts Silicon Valley’s push for inclusion on wobbly footing.

I highly recommend reading the original post, but I’ll give a short summary. Upon joining Uber, Fowler began receiving blatantly inappropriate messages over company channels from her manager indirectly soliciting sex. After screenshotting those messages and reporting them to the company’s human resources office, Fowler wrote that she, “was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment, and he was propositioning [her], it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”

While an unnervingly tame response to fairly explicit harassment, upper management at Uber further commented, according to Fowler, that the manager in question was a “high performer” and that they didn’t want to ruin his career over an “innocent mistake.”

It seems as if the hyper-focus on performance that grew Uber to a $68 billion valuation had taken precedence over the well-being of its employees. This is a well-discussed topic in tech: a male-dominated industry fails to recognize that it’s not at all welcoming to an important pool of talent: women. But it’s another of Fowler’s experiences that made me rethink the push for diversity in the technology industry.

Fowler described wanting to transfer from one team to another. She had a perfect performance review score and managers on other teams were clamoring for her. Yet, time after time she found herself denied. She later found out that, “keeping me on the team made my manager look good, and I overheard him boasting to the rest of the team that even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers left and right, he still had some on his team.”

If there’s any sentence that describes a failed incentive, it’s this: tech companies have been under increasing pressure to hire and retain female employees, so this manager decided to make sure he had the best numbers in his department. In short, Fowler fell victim to the commodification of diversity. It’s an issue that’s far from isolated to Silicon Valley. Any organization that’s predominantly male or white or wealthy — looking at you, Ivy League — has been subject to increasing pressure to diversify. The way we report that is often in population percentages, but even a good percentage may not accurately reflect actual inclusion, equality or diversity. By accepting mere percentage points as signs of progress, we’ve created a perverse incentive. Diversity becomes a commodity to be collected and flaunted, all while the actual goal remains unfulfilled.

There’s an analog in the development of artificial intelligence. If you’re teaching an AI to clean a room by rewarding it every time it cleans a mess, what’s to stop it from creating more of a mess to then clean up? In fact, an improper reward function may encourage this behavior. This has happened with pushes toward inclusion. The effect in the real world may be a college with a diverse population — loudly advertised in admissions’ brochures — but zero interaction between groups. It could be an exclusive social club that, under pressure to diversify, institutes a quota system. Sure, it’s morally wrong in every way, but it’ll probably appease the administration. Or it could be a team in a tech company that stops its female engineers from transferring to maintain the appearance of diversity.

When we aim for lofty goals like equality and inclusion, it’s difficult to measure progress. But that cannot deter us from trying. Diversity does not equal even, proportional representation of every minority, gender and sexuality if those populations are not given equal opportunity, treatment or welcome. We must demand better metrics lest we allow progress to be gamed. Most importantly, we must avoid creating perverse incentives, or else we may find ourselves losing ground on the issues we’ve fought so hard for.