What that Oscar speech can teach us about diversity in tech

by Nicole Shephard


When Frances McDormand asked all women nominees to stand up, to stand with her during her recent Oscar acceptance speech, she gave a much needed platform to some important ideas around diversity and inclusion. This is what she had to say:

Look around everybody, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties tonight, invite us into your office in a couple of days and we’ll tell you all about them. I have two words to leave with you tonight ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.

Her speech follows campaigns like #metoo and #tiemesup alongside a growing public recognition of harassment, discrimination, and unequal pay in the film industry. It’s a welcome intervention from within an industry that isn’t exactly famous for its diversity, a sign that Hollywood has irreversibly changed, and it’s a call for more urgent change. That’s powerful, and anyone outside the film industry could sit back and look forward to (fingers crossed) more diverse viewing experiences in the years to come.

But let’s take a moment to unpack how what she’s asking of Hollywood translates to the conversation about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry instead.

Image of an empty cinema in black and red. Diverisity in Tech

Would inclusion riders work for diversity in tech?

To begin with the two words that McDormand left off with, what’s an inclusion rider? An inclusion rider is a contractual clause meant to counter bias in the casting process. Stacy Smith, Founder and Director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, proposed inclusion riders as one possible tool to foster more diversity on the big screen. In a nutshell, A-listers should leverage their negotiating power to demand that a film’s cast adequately represent the demography of where the story is set. To Smith, this idea is not limited to gender diversity but extends to the representation and inclusion of people of colour, LGBT people and people with disabilities.

Are inclusion riders perhaps transferable to recruitment practices in the tech industry? Not directly. While prospective candidates increasingly value diversity, few candidates will have the kind of leverage a film star holds in Hollywood. The risk that insisting on an inclusion rider may cost an individual candidate their chances of being hired at all is likely to grow with the size of the potential candidate pool for any given position.

And, a film’s cast and crew are typically hired at the beginning of a project where a big-name lead is in a position to make their participation contingent on a diversity clause. In most tech companies, where hierarchies and staff are to large extents already in place, it seems unlikely that a similar level of hiring takes place at the same time. A conceivable exception could be making venture capital for a startup contingent on diversity and inclusion – with a little more bite than a non-binding side letter, that is.

The powers that be

Inclusion riders are unlikely to have great pull in the tech industry, but this is where McDormand’s second intervention comes into play. Just before ending on inclusion riders, she forcefully makes a much wider point that is definitely applicable far beyond the film industry. She appeals to the gatekeepers in the audience to take a good look at the women now standing with her and to leverage their decision making power for more diversity and inclusion in the industry.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal (along with other big names called out for their appalling behaviour) has put a face on a much wider problem. A small group of people that predominantly consists of white men holds the power to make decisions and control what opportunities become available to others, to make and break careers in the industry. How the abuse of such positions of power, but also this concentration of power in and of itself, structurally limit who gets to participate and advance in their career finds strong analogies in the tech industry.

This can range from the all male interview panel, the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in tech roles and decision making positions, to tech cultures where harassment and bullying are widespread, or the lack of gender and racial diversity in venture capital. Women and ethnic minority tech workers also don’t often run in the same circles as the white male tech crowd and thus miss out on opportunities these informal networks provide.

While Uber may be to tech what Weinstein has become to film (and sexual harassment at Uber may even literally become a film one day), it is these wider structures and the gatekeepers who uphold them that McDormand takes to task in her appeal, and they are far from confined to the big names that come to stand in for them.

Situating diversity work where it belongs

This represents a considerable shift in perspective from previous diversity initiatives where the work of being included was individualised and often expected to be shouldered by those on the margins.

For so long the diversity debate has been dominated by a model of individual deficiency: the idea that female, working-class and ethnic-minority workers tend to lack the connections, networks, skills or confidence to make it on the otherwise oh-so-level playing fields. ~ Doris Ruth Eikhof

The diversity work Eikhof refers to as “enabling initiatives” that focus on “training, networking and mentoring programmes targeted to help specific groups of workers get in and get on” also find strong analogies in tech. Sandberg’s “Lean In” approach comes to mind first and foremost, as it popularised the idea of getting a seat at the table by taking one, i.e. by making inclusion a question of individual empowerment. But any programme aimed at coaching or mentoring women and minority groups to make it in tech, and to make tech more diverse in the process, could stand in as an example here. The issue at stake isn’t that such initiatives are not successful (they very well can be), it’s that they miss the point by addressing the symptom rather than the cause.

So, what does it mean to tackle diversity in tech from the right end, so to speak? It means some serious work on addressing the structural issues. It means getting a more diverse tech workforce by fixing the industry and its culture rather than making women and minorities more resilient to its hostility. And it means firmly placing the heavy workload of achieving this on the gatekeepers rather than on those currently excluded and underrepresented.

Hire me for research, writing or consultancy around diversity, inclusion and the intersectional politics of data and technology. Get in touch!