Revealing Motivated Ignorance within Silicon Valley

Source: The New Yorker.

February 19th, 2017 marked a day of reckoning for ride-sharing company, Uber. In her essay, “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber,” Susan Fowler, now tech opinion editor for the New York Times, detailed her shocking experiences of sexual harassment within Uber. Her essay exposed a system that valued performance over harassment claims and promoted a male-dominated culture that encouraged women to quit. [1] What ensued was the ousting of CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick alongside nearly 20 other employees accused of harassment. More significantly, other women working in tech became emboldened to come forward with similar stories of sexual harassment within the workplace, bringing direct spotlight to the failure of diversity and inclusion efforts within American tech companies.

Experiences like Susan Fowler’s were not new developments. In its wake, her essay shed light on the culture of pervasive sexism, racism, and prejudice that was already widespread in Silicon Valley.  As a prime example, consider former Facebook partnership manager Mark Luckie’s memoir which characterizes Facebook’s “black people problem,” where the company’s population of black employees failed to effectively represent its black user base, highlighting cases of racial discrimination at Facebook. As another example, a 2019 survey showed nearly 40% of LGBTQ tech employees claimed to have witnessed harassment of LGBTQ individuals within their workplace. [2] While essays like Fowler’s have led to more diversity and inclusion efforts within tech companies — reassessment of hiring practices, yearly diversity reports, and workplace training —  progress has been extremely slow. This conflict leads to the question: are our current diversity efforts well-equipped to address the built-in prejudices within the tech scene?

Cover of Susan Fowler's book covering her experiences at Uber and its aftermath.

The answer is a resounding no. In fact, I claim that there exists a form of motivated ignorance within tech companies, where the marginalization of minority groups helps to uphold the privileges of those in power. Specifically, the term ‘ignorance’ should not be confounded as a simple lack of education or understanding of certain sociopolitical issues but rather as a conscious effort to maintain privilege. Motivated ignorance is the willful choice to misunderstand the reality of situations, and it serves as a tool to perpetuate marginalization of groups while eliminating internal blame towards those who partake and benefit from systemic inequality.

Current diversity efforts do not address this nuanced bias. While there’s been a greater spotlight and surface level efforts to address sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace, the extent to which these efforts have meaningful outcomes is unclear. For instance, companies can make immediate amends and outwardly facing demonstrations to appease public sentiment, but lack transparency on their internal developments. 

Take Uber as an example. After Susan Fowler’s allegations and Travis Kalanick’s leave, they’ve taken active steps to address their mistakes by dedicating human capital in a diversity and inclusion department, alongside new initiatives such as yearly diversity reports and improved hiring practices. However, Uber’s ‘scrappy,’ hustling work culture persists across the Valley. Most glaringly, despite his tumultuous exit and evident perpetuation of a toxic workplace culture within Uber, Kalanick went on to raise four hundred million dollars for his new venture in the kitchens-for-rent market. [3]

Similarly, motivated ignorance is limiting the promotion of diversity within the workplace, especially in upward career mobility towards the executive suite level. While there have been considerable efforts and success in rebalancing entry level hiring in the tech industry, the workforce and corporate leadership are two entirely different things. The growing diversity of the workforce does not mean that women and minorities will automatically move into positions of power. A 2013 study of 15 years of leadership in Fortune 500 companies is particularly striking, as it highlights the existence of a ‘glass cliff’ for women and minority leaders. They’re often appointed to leadership roles during riskier periods or crises within companies, and as soon as company performance dips, they’re likely to be replaced by white men, who are seen as the ‘saviors’ of the company. In the end, leadership remains in the hands of a homogeneous, patently undiverse group. [4] High profile examples are everywhere such as Marisa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo, or Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, where media and employees were more transfixed upon their gender above their objectives and competencies. [5] Thus, combatting motivated ignorance takes more than just the occasional promotion of diverse leaders. There needs to be a similar effort to enable lasting leadership opportunity that is continually supplemented by further mentorship of future minority and women leaders.

Snippets from Uber's first Diversity Report in 2017.

Thus, a more rigorous, strict approach must be considered to truly effectively combat motivated ignorance: quotas. Despite their historic controversy in implementation, quotas offer a quantifiable metric to easily enforce within companies. They represent a well-researched methodology for breaking the unconscious, built-in prejudices that perpetuate discriminatory tendencies within tech companies. Their stringent, structured framework leaves little room for any unintended discrimination. [6]

While current efforts for diversity and inclusion within the tech industry are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were even ten years ago, it’s evident that these initiatives will hit a wall in terms of potential improvements to working cultures and environments. Today’s ecosystem of startups, companies, and venture capital is all predicated upon profit, and their present-day setup works well to maximize returns. Therefore, companies will quell immediate demands with the slightest shifts possible for the appearance of change, then continue on with the status quo. Understanding that willful, motivated ignorance exists is the first step to developing similarly motivated efforts to break down these barriers, and quotas offer an effective next step towards actively combatting motivated ignorance.

Authors

Ryan Kim
Co-President, Harvard Tech Review

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