Members of Congress last week took on the issue of diversity in tech–or, rather, its absence.
A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee heard testimony from a handful of witnesses March 6 about the longstanding reality that the workforces at most big-tech companies lack racial, ethnic, gender and other forms of diversity. Consensus from the speakers–who included everyone from researchers to a former Facebook manager, although no current representatives of tech companies–was that the monolithic nature of tech companies’ staff is ingraining bias in their products.
“While the U.S. has become more and more diverse, the workforce of the technology sector has not kept up,” Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), chair of the committee, said in a statement. “And we are seeing the effects of that in the products and services we use–like wearable fitness trackers that don’t work for people with dark skin, online job advertisements targeted at men over women, and websites with buttons and links too small for people with motor impairments to use.”
The former Facebook staffer who testified, Mark Luckie, who has been outspoken about the lack of diversity in tech, cited controversies like an Amazon hiring algorithm that inherently favored men and an Apple health app that could track a sea of health concerns, yet erroneously left out menstrual-cycle tracking.
“There are a number of reasons some of these oversights happen, including overreliance on algorithms, teams without diverse voices or lack of input from communities of color,” Luckie testified, according to the Washington Post. “Most of these oversights can be mitigated by employing and retaining staff from diverse backgrounds in an environment that welcomes all voices. Statistically, tech companies are not doing that.”
Proposals from witnesses included beefing up civil-rights laws to account for bias in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, employer-organized focus groups with minority communities and tougher oversight from federal agencies like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.