Biased by Design
Exclusion hurts tech companies more than
A few months ago, my boyfriend con-
vinced me to use Snapchat. He was taking
goofy pictures and wanted me to join him.
But when I tried, the app would map my
face, and—nothing. We changed positions.
We tried improving the lighting. Nothing
worked. I started to get that familiar sinking feeling in my stomach, the flush of heat
to my face. Growing up in Texas, I received
many negative messages about my dark
skin. Now here I was, 20 years later, too
black for Snapchat.
Today, we recognize that the tech
industry has a problem with bias—
conscious and unconscious. The business case
for diversity has been established—in 2015,
McKinsey found that diverse teams perform better over the long term (see Innovator Under 35 Stephanie Lampkin, page
69). But we’re also finding the immediate benefits of diversity. Businesses need
people who can identify a company’s blind
spots—and the more homogenous the
team, the bigger the blind spot.
Companies that lack diversity risk
building products that exclude their customers—my experience with Snapchat
being one example. Sometimes the exclusion is more blatant, as when Amazon was
discovered in April to be excluding black
neighborhoods from its next-day delivery
Exclusion isn’t the only way disenfranchised groups feel pushed out. Facebook
has come under fire for suppressing posts
supporting Black Lives Matter or conservative politics. People who send death threats
via networks like Twitter often face only
delayed or underwhelming repercussions.
Biases can become embedded in a
product during any period of the devel-
opment process. If the people making the
products happen to come from a group
that rarely experiences discrimination,
those people will have a harder time pre-
dicting how bias will manifest itself. As an
example, a recent study found that Airbnb
guests with African-American names
were 16 percent less likely to find lodging.
Airbnb itself may have been shocked by
that, if only because most Airbnb employ-
ees don’t encounter that kind of bias in
their own lives.
Unconscious biases woven into the
DNA of a firm can be passed down from
team to product to user. And these blind
spots have consequences. They can lead to
low levels of adoption, premature market
saturation, and broken products.
Simply put, diversity increases the likelihood of a tech company’s survival. Nearly
half of all new businesses survive their first
five years, but only 10 percent of tech startups survive past the first 18 months. An
estimated 42 percent of tech-startup failures can be attributed in part to a fundamental misunderstanding of the market. A
company with a diverse team that’s capable of recognizing gaps in organizational
thinking is less likely to have a crippling
blind spot than one with a homogenous
team. An organization that sees, understands, and is able to respond to its market
is more likely to thrive than one that can’t.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson is the founder of
ReadySet and a founding member of the
advocacy group Project Include.
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