Why the ‘cult’ mentality in IT hinders diversity

The persistent notion that a tech job should be not just your job but your hobby, your passion, your everything is detrimental to a more diverse tech workforce.

women in network room
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“Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That sounds great on the surface (or as an inspirational quote on Instagram), but there’s a slightly sinister undercurrent to this concept, and it seems especially pervasive in tech. 

I like to think of it as an “obsession with obsession” —  the idea that you can only “belong” and “fit in” in technology if it’s not just your job but your hobby, your passion, your everything. This way of thinking can be extremely detrimental to anyone who’s not the stereotypical IT pro: in other words, anyone who’s not straight, white, cisgendered, male, young and childless. 

It’s what made Megan McArdle decide that she didn’t belong — that “these are not my people” — after starting a promising career in tech, which she showed aptitude for and seemed to enjoy. It’s what led her to assume that James Damore was onto something when he used the same, tired, scientifically unsound arguments that women are not suited to tech. She’s internalized the misogyny. And I’ll say it once more, louder, for the people in the back: It’s complete and utter sexist bullshit. 

[ Read also: How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers ]

Who has the time, the money, the energy to build fibre-channel networks in their basement on the weekends? Not many working parents. Not many women. Not many people in lower income brackets (who, by the way, tend to be black, Hispanic, Latinx, LGBTQ, and/or those who fall into more than one of those categories). 

So, who does that leave? It leaves white, wealthy, straight, cisgendered young males, that’s who. It often excludes women, black people, Hispanic/Latinx people, married people, working parents, LGBTQA+ people — anyone who doesn’t have the desire, not to mention the time, the energy or the means to build those networks in their spare time. 

[ Read also: Still asking why tech struggles with diversity and inclusion? Google it ]

It’s subtle, and it’s insidious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as harmful as more overt bias and discrimination. And we have to start challenging notions like this whenever we see them, says Kate Flathers, vice president of product development at DrugDev, a software platform that streamlines the clinical trial process, and whom I spoke with back in 2016 for a piece on barriers to entry for women in tech

Flathers is exceptionally good at her job. She’s a woman. Tech is her job, and she enjoys it, but it’s not her obsession. 

“I’m really good at programming. I’m really good at logic problems. But honestly, I’m not going to sit around, in my free time, on the computer writing code,” Flathers told me.

The cult-like world of computer science

Nurses aren’t expected to practice medical procedures or patient care in their spare time. Truck drivers also aren’t seen as odd for eschewing driving-related hobbies. So, why this “obsession with obsession” around the IT field? 

“Computer science is almost treated like a cult, and honestly, it should be seen as any other career where you learn skills and you gain experience so you can do a job,” Flathers says. “You don’t have to sit around gaming or writing code on the side. You don’t have to fit into the larger culture around this field in order to do well at it.” 

It may seem like a small and relatively insignificant thing, but dismantling these basic notions of who does and doesn’t belong in tech is one way to change the narrative and address the inequalities in the field. Doing so could open up this incredibly lucrative field to more women, underrepresented minorities and other groups (which, come to think of it, is probably why the cishet white male population doesn’t want to address these issues, but that’s another story).  

So, if you have an interest in or an aptitude for tech but you’re wavering because “these aren’t my people,” please reconsider. These can be your people; we just need to deprogram a bit, challenge the cult status and start to break down these insidious notions one at a time.

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