Meritocracy and Discrimination in Tech

I’ve been the jerk who denies a candidate their hopes for an internship hundreds of times. That’s not a point of pride – just a consequence of helping build eight (nine?) classes of interns at two small companies that both happen to receive up to 500 intern applications every month.

I’ve obsessed over finding ways to build internship classes full of the best developers in an industry where the phrase “best developers” is so overused it’s become meaningless. In all cases, the male:female ratio has been exactly what you’d expect in tech.

So when Jessica penned her post the other day celebrating the fact that Khan Academy’s inbound Summer ‘13 class somehow has twice the number of females as males, I smiled big. Even though we all knew it wouldn’t last as acceptances come in (it already hasn’t held), our team enjoyed a brief moment basking in the future that we (and all educators around the world) hope to build: a world in which being a female developer ceases to be a novelty.

Here’s the top-voted comment on her post:


Here are some selected comments from sharing it on Facebook:


Here’s John Resig on Twitter’s equally frustrating if less-accusatory response:

As the person who stands at the end of our hiring process’s pipeline, I find “Mark“‘s idea that we’re sacrificing quality to fill some quota merely very insulting. If I were one of the women who has successfully navigated our brutal interview process, I’d be furious.

It doesn’t help to be an industry obsessed with meritocracy if the first reaction to an altered status quo is that OUR MERITOCRACY MUST BE BROKEN, SOUND THE ALARMS. That’s an a-hole old-timer’s club.

We should celebrate shifts we see in the historically depressing numbers of women in tech, especially when validated by rigorously competitive hiring environments. Why celebrate if we’re aiming for perfect equality? Because we’re not there yet and should encourage change we want to see.


As I was pacing around our company parking lot trying to decide whether or not to curse in this post I kept thinking about the hubbub raised when a 14-year-old posted his iPhone juggling game on Hacker News. He told the community his age. Because of that, he was met with accusations of “emotional manipulation” and “why can’t we leave age/sex/race out of it all.”

It requires a dangerously simple view of the world to decide that we don’t want to encourage a 14-year-old who’s pushing his limits by building mobile apps because we’re scared of risking our oh-so-perfect meritocracy.

It’s not a meritocracy until all 14-year-olds know that they can build mobile apps. It’s not a meritocracy until we don’t have one gender wondering if tech companies are just stomping grounds for another.

So we’ll continue encouraging females, children, and just about anybody to get into tech by celebrating milestones along the way. To those this threatens – oh.

2/16/13 — 12:23pm Permalink
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