Facebook is really diverse (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

August 12, 2021   4 mins

America is being torn apart by a harsh paradox. On the one hand, the US Declaration of Independence thunderously declares “all men are created equal”. Yet on the other, the country’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) ranks it alongside heavily stratified Bolivia.

The contrast is even sharper if you consider the “equity” that various social justice movements seek to achieve, in which every sub-segment of society — at least those we fixate on — must be proportionally represented at every echelon of society. Or really, only in the elite reaches of the social firmament; nobody bothers with the racial diversity of lumberjacks, fruit workers or commercial fishermen. 

Nowhere is the paradox between Darwinian competition for success and the progressive pursuit for equality more apparent than in Silicon Valley. Titans like Facebook or Apple — where, until recently, I worked — relentlessly race to recruit the best talent and put them through an absolute wringer of an interview process designed to filter for The Perfect Software Engineer or The Perfect Product Manager. I’ve been through it myself many times — sometimes successfully, often not. The hiring rates, a handful among hundreds of candidates reviewed, resemble the acceptance rates at the universities that typically grace the CVs in question.

Once our lucky candidate is given the job, the measurement doesn’t stop. Every tech company has an involved performance review process, aligned with whatever management gospel they believe. Employees, having spent long hours both working in Zoom meetings and bonding in “offsites” — imagine a school trip combined with group therapy — are then asked to submit “360-degree feedback”. Similar to East Germans writing Stasi reports on their neighbours, employees rank all their colleagues according to whatever rubric is deemed most important.

The calculus is even harsher among Silicon Valley’s high-growth startups. Here, returns on techno-capital can be stratospheric, way beyond even other capitalism-soaked boom times of the past. A single well-timed investment can make good on a venture capitalist’s entire fund, and a few choice years at the right company can set up an engineer for life.

But herein lies the problem: if venture-capital-fuelled technology is one of the most brutal, though effective, amplifiers of human talent, then the outcomes will be spectacularly unequal. Which is why the diversity agenda — the thought that all groups must enjoy equal representation everywhere we choose to measure — reaches such a crusading fervour inside the tech industry. The economic peaks and valleys that must be pummelled smooth are Grand Canyon-esque in their proportions. But in the current American zeitgeist, that enormous discrepancy in outcome is instantly projected along a single obsessive dimension: race and ethnicity.

The diversity reports from large public tech companies — they’re all required to publish them nowadays — reflect this one-dimensional focus. Consider a table from Google’s 2021 US diversity report below. Asians constitute over 40% of all of Google; that’s a seven-times overrepresentation versus their population percentage. Whites form barely 50% of Google, which is less than their percentage of the population as a whole.

More amusing in Google’s report is the crude racial categorisation which perfectly captures the progressive agenda’s simplistic approach to “diversity”. Here you can toggle the region to any part of the globe, and all of humanity in its spectacular diversity reduces to essentially the same five buckets: Asian+, Black+, Latinx+, White+ and Native American+. In true American style, it takes all the world’s real-life cultural diversity, puts it through the meat grinder of American racial politics and pops out five flavours.

A closer look at the “diversity data” reveals just how unhelpful this approach is; Silicon Valley is one of the most open and diverse industries in the United States.

According to data from the American Community Survey, something like 39% of software engineers in 2015 were foreign-born, many times higher than the baseline 17% of foreign-born in the US workforce. More anecdotally, in my thirteen or so years working in numerous companies, I was routinely the only American-born citizen and the only native English speaker. (Put to one side the irony that as Mr. García-Martínez, I’m actually an utterly basic Cuban-American exile type from Miami.)

The same people who highlight the supposedly glaring deficiencies in Silicon Valley “diversity” are often the first to point out how roughly half of Silicon Valley “unicorn” companies are founded by immigrants, or how two-fifths of the FAANG quintumvirate are led by immigrants. Such figures are counterintuitively cited as proof that increasing diversity is good and we should have more of it. But is Silicon Valley a den of white privilege, or is it an avenue of enormous success for non-American, foreign-born minorities? It can’t be both.

Indeed, today “white” doesn’t really refer to a skin tone: it’s the set of people not offered any sanctioned sympathy in the otherwise ruthless battle for talent and resources. Arguably, “white” has always been something more metaphysical than biological: the Italians, Irish, and Jews and various flavours of non-WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were not “white” in decades past, and only slowly acceded to “Whiteness” as social mobility climbed and prejudice receded. In a sense, how quickly a group “gets to white” is a measure of their success in the ever-churning American assimilation machine. What will “white” mean in twenty years’ time?

As with many other social trends, I suspect the answer will come from Silicon Valley. When discussing tech’s “dismal” diversity record, Asians are simply dropped from the picture. This is a form of functional “whitewashing” that will likely expand to include other successful minorities. Yet outside of this absurdly reductionist Diversity Inc. worldview, Silicon Valley continues to be just a roaring machine for recognising and rewarding — to often ludicrous extremes — any talent it can find by whatever means.

Want to make American companies still more diverse than they already are? Forget “equity” targets and institute a points-based immigration system like Canada and New Zealand have, which streamlines global STEM graduates working at US companies. Let’s give the much-coveted US “green card” to every engineering graduate of an American research university, so that they don’t have negotiate bureaucratic black holes to stay in the country.

Those bosses desperate for corporate photos with lots of non-WASP faces in them — beaming, hoodie-clad, from inside the shiny gleaming interiors of Silicon Valley’s plush corporate campuses — could only be supportive of the idea. Let’s have accented English be (even more) the norm inside the country’s most successful companies. We might just be surprised at the result.

Antonio García Martínez is the author of Chaos Monkeys. He writes regularly about tech on The Pull Request.