Self-Selecting Bias: A Closer Look

There’s never been a more exciting time for inclusivity in tech. In September 2016, we will see the third annual New York Lesbians Who Tech Summit. In May, Dev Bootcamp announced its partnership with Lesbians Who Tech to provide scholarships for LGBTQ women to learn to code. TransTech Social Enterprises, an incubator for LGBTQ talent in technology, was featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Activism and transparency are on everyone’s mind.

But when we look at diversity statistics from tech giants and startups alike (and particularly within executive boards,) we still see a majority male, majority white workforce industry-wide. These are companies that are supposed to be on the leading edge of tolerance—and many of them are. So why doesn’t all of this add up to more women in startups? Or to a more racially diverse Twitter staff?

What we mean when we talk about diversity is another question that’s too often dismissed. The word is thrown around in mission statements, press clippings, and activist tweets alike. Diversity comes in a multitude of forms, yet in most contexts the word is coded language for something far more specific. We won't unpack this further here, but we'll leave it at this: there’s an infinite number of ways we can be different from one another, an infinite number of ways to think, to innovate. This is itself a cornerstone of the tech industry: new ways of thinking can translate into new ways—better ways—of living.

And we’ve done our reading. We know that study after study shows diversity of all kinds drives innovation. There’s certainly been a marked increase in conversation around diversity, but what about disrupting the industry-wide bias that favors the white demographic and male demographic? It’s an aphorism—“easier said than done.”

Self-selecting bias, as we define it at Talos, the bias that continually selects startup projects from people who don’t represent the real market demographic. Within the technology industry, it most often manifests in three ways.

1. Receiving seed funding from family and friends.

A great number of startups, Talos included, receive initial funding from family or friends—it’s an uncomfortable reality of the industry. This practice selects a group of primarily white, wealthy individuals, who are in social circles that enable this type of behavior. While this type of financial support allows for more organized and well-rounded projects, giving them time to allow for maturation and development, it’s true that equally capable founders and innovative ideas go unfunded every day because their social circles are not as affluent. 

This is not only inequitable but a part of the reason so many projects that people don't actually want or need get produced; when a bunch of like people in like environments get together, it generally doesn't produce particularly new or innovative ideas.

2. Trickle Down Tech

Broadly speaking, technology is produced for the highest value market possible and then is expanded into lower value markets after success or growth has been shown in the high-value market space. Often when it is expanded, however, the technology is significantly less suited for the broader market, and the company struggles to extend its services. That which is a solution in one context will not necessarily be a solution for another.

The issue stems from the flawed presumption that it is better to give people a solution we think is best rather than to take the time and energy to get to the solution that they need or want. Talos's founder, Brandon, testifies that this often happens in the Philippines when charities or westerners come with prepackaged solutions they think will solve problems rather than ask the people they are trying to help what they need first and then work out how best to provide it. Understanding how someone might use technology differently than how you do or might need different technology than what you need, all starts with a diverse team of innovators.

3. The Belief You Don't Have a Bias

The third manifestation is the hardest to address because it requires people to recognize their own faults. Startups and seasoned big tech executives alike often view themselves as the liberal revolutionaries of our day. But, with the industry-wide gender gap and the entire development system, which favors well-educated, wealthy individuals, the revolution is only present in rhetoric and perception.

Having a personal history gives you bias. It is a loaded term, implying that you're short-sighted or prioritize the interests of your own socio-economic group over others. The truth is though, we’re all short-sighted. We can only know our own history and our own experiences or those we’ve found in books. This is exactly why diversity leads to innovation. The diversity of experience in a room and the fostering of inclusivity simply give a team a larger sample of life from which to draw ideas or invent solutions.

Kara Swisher, a tech journalist, at the San Francisco Lesbians Who Tech Summit earlier this year told the audience her least favorite expression is “unconscious bias.”

“Because there’s nothing unconscious about it,” Swisher said. “I think if you’re looking across the room at Twitter, and there are ten white men there, and you didn’t notice, you’re an idiot.”

Here’s where I admit a few of my own biases: I think Kara Swisher is rad. I think increasing diversity in the American workforce is as inevitable as rising sea levels. And I think it’s time to up-cycle these binders full of white men lying around Silicon Valley.

Let’s stop using the word bias like it’s an insult, and let’s stop using the word diversity like it’s inclusive.