Why diversity actually matters (examining women and people of color in the Net Awards)

  • Allison House By Allison House

This is a response to "Why diversity matters in the web design industry" by Oliver Lindberg, editor of net magazine.

Net Awards Logo

Every year, net magazine produces a popular awards show recognizing the achievements of the best individuals, teams, and projects in web design. It's called the Net Awards and it's the largest, longest-running ceremony of its kind.

Here's a brief history.

  • In 2007, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2008, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2009, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2010, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2011, every individual award winner was white.
  • In 2013, every individual award winner was white.

The nominees for 2014 were just announced, hand-selected from more than 2,000 community nominations. There are 70 people up for individual awards, and here they are.

Meet the nominees

Net Awards Nominees

Hey, that's a good-looking group of people!

All these folks are incredibly talented, and I'm happy to see web designers and developers noticed for doing exceptional stuff. I have quite a few friends in there and I'm rooting for 'em.

But let's take a closer look at—dun dun dun—representation. How are women and people of color, the larger marginalized groups in our industry, represented here?

Women

Net Awards Nominees - Women

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, something like 33% of web developers are women. They only make up 13.6% of the individual award nominees.

Alice Lee isn't a nominee, but last year she designed and illustrated the brand new Dropbox.com. Follow her at @byalicelee.

The only woman in Entrepreneur of the Year is part of a couple, making her a half-nominee. No women were nominated for Young Developer of the Year.

In an interesting twist, a non-individual category called Conference Talk of the Year very reasonably features four women. This sounds good until we consider that the only category where women are really represented is not technical.

Not-so-coincidentally, this lines up with stereotypes about women underperforming in technical roles.

Still, these numbers are an improvement from previous years. Oliver Lindberg, editor of net magazine, published Why diversity matters in the web design industry in response to criticism around diversity in the Net Awards.

Cat Noone isn't a nominee, but last year she founded and designed Liberio, a dead simple way to make and publish eBooks. Follow her at @imcatnoone.

They seem to recognize a problem... with gender. With the exception of an aside at the end, Lindberg discusses gender exclusively.

Thinking of diversity this way is problematic. There are lots of other underrepresented groups in our industry, each with their own obstacles. Erasing them from the conversation ignores their experiences and perpetuates a cycle of exclusion.

For designers in particular, our work is rooted in empathy. We can't afford to think of diversity so narrowly that we dismiss those people.

Let's take a look at how people of color are represented.

People of color

Net Awards Nominees - People of Color

Have mercy! Out of 70 individual award nominees, 67 are white. There are three people of color. I just about started singing Springsteen: "Blinded by the white..."

Lindberg suggests these disparities are just "symptomatic of the industry". Got it. The buck stops... over there.

Except it doesn't. Look at these numbers for designers and web developers in the United States in 2012! Around 20% of designers and 18% of web developers are of color.

Occupation: Designers

  • Women: 51.6%
  • Black: 4%
  • Hispanic: 6.6%
  • Asian: 9.3%

Occupation: Web developers

  • Women: 33.7%
  • Black: 4.1%
  • Hispanic: 5.6%
  • Asian: 8%
Chikezie Ejiasi isn't a nominee, but last year he made the Google+ mobile apps a fun and social place to interact with friends. Follow him at @Chik.

Additionally, Asians are actually way overrepresented in Silicon Valley, making up more than 50% of those working in computer or mathematical occupations.

These statistics don't even include Natives, Pacific Islanders, or mixed race people like me.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Net Awards don't really approach the "representative [...] ratio" they mention.

Long live the meritocracy

"We couldn't just include [marginalized] people whose visible work wasn't as good as the other contenders in a given category."

Statements like this sound obvious, but are predicated on the pernicious, unrelenting myth that our industry operates in a meritocracy.

Rebecca Goldman isn't a nominee, but last year she designed Heyday, a beautiful way to journal and surface memories. Follow her at @RebeccaGoldman.

Meritocracy was discussed heavily last year, and this post offers a great summary of the issues. It's an idea that sweeps bias under the rug, ignoring its influence on power and visibility.

We have to see and acknowledge that before we can address it. Nominations from the public will never represent complete information.

People with the most privilege—like white, straight, cisgender, abled men—have a way easier time being seen. People with the least privilege—like women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities—often get a raw deal.

Lindberg gives us a powerful example of privilege in his description of diversity issues:

"[The topic of diversity in tech] comes around every so often, gets everyone up in arms and then disappears again for a while."

Wow.

Justin Edmund isn't a nominee, but last year he designed stunning maps for Pinterest with Place Pins. Follow him at @jedmund.

People in our community are discussing and living with the consequences of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, and other systemic prejudice every single day.

These discussions are largely unnoticed by the mainstream, even among those who otherwise live and breathe technology.

Diversity is more than an obligation

Lindberg repeatedly acknowledges that diversity is important in the context of obligation.

You [...] have a responsibility as an industry publication to foster new talent, put together a roster of contributors with a representative gender ratio and give everyone an equal chance.

That's evident, but what are the actual consequences? Beyond accountability or appeasement, why does diversity matter?

Well, leaving the system unchecked actively harms marginalized people. Inaction does all kinds of damage:

This will continue until we change the narrative. That means educating ourselves, aggressive outreach, forming partnerships, and working with specialists until we are including more than "representative" numbers of marginalized people in our conference panels, recruiting pipelines, marketing material, and industry-wide displays of recognition.


I'm putting them under the microscope, but I know the net magazine folks work really hard on the Net Awards. Better representation on the judging panel is a good start, but we must be clear about the issues and why diversity is critical. Thanks for inviting this discussion.

Further reading

  • Allison House By Allison House

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Hey, Allison House here!

I was looking through old articles recently and realized—man, I’ve always written about pretty technical stuff. Lots of code snippets, screenshots, and step-by-step instructions.

Even the education products I’ve designed, like Codecademy and Treehouse, are built to help people expand their technical skill set. When you’re totally new to design and coding, that’s fine. You need that.

But let’s say you’re a DIY learning success story. You did the work and can turn out a website like it ain’t no thang. Huzzah! You’re ready to take your new design skills to market.

Then there’s this gap, right?

Illustration of gap between technical proficiency and career

How do you make the leap from technical proficiency to having a design career in technology you love?

When you don’t know the answer to that question—and hey, most folks don’t—you basically fall down the gap and end up hanging out on the bottom rung for a few years. Or more.

Escapees of the bottom rung will tell you, “Sorry, you have to stay down there awhile. That’s how you earn your stripes. And can you move that 2 pixels to the left?” (They are probably your manager.)

I want to help you skip the bottom rung.

I don’t know where this blog is going to end up, but here’s where it will begin:

How do you get a great design job—maybe even at a leading technology company—with no work experience?

I’ll explain what I’ve learned from hiring designers at Dropbox and Codecademy and give you specific, actionable advice. I’ll even throw in some bonus insights from my friends at companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Sign up for updates! I’ve learned a lot and so will you.