Worstall on Weds (on Thurs) I've been watching with some amusement a little story about Pinterest noting that it's got a user base that leans heavily female. It's doing the rounds as the company thinks, well, it would be nice to be stuffing men full of ads as well (when it actually starts slinging ads) so, umm, why don't we go out and try and find some male customers?
That all sounds eminently sensible but my amusement is coming from the way in which this is all being presented. Like the other big "tech"-slash-media companies, Pinterest is largely designed and run by men - and predominantly white men.
A lot of people are up in arms about this. It's a civil liberties violation, we are told, that there's not an equal number of slots as opposed to tabs among the genitalia of the coders at these companies. And it hasn't escaped observation that the amount of skin melanin is lower than in the general population also.
Going back to the users for a moment, Pinterest - if we're to look for a before-digital equivalent - is perhaps best regarded as scrapbooking. And certainly in American culture that's long been an activity that skews female. Hey, different genders have different propensities to do things. Who knew? Well, everyone. And nobody's terribly upset about that.
But that observation doesn't seem to be flowing over into different genders having different propensities when deciding what to work at during their lives. And I would think that it fairly obviously should. You don't have to buy in their entirety Simon Baron Cohen's ideas about the male and female brains* to note that pretty much whatever, on average and over a population men and women do tend to have slightly different ideas about what makes a desirable life and the work they'd like to do to fund it.
You might also suggest that well before Big Tech and its hiring process gets into the picture, the number of girls doing advanced maths and maths-based subjects at school and university differs seriously from the number of boys. This may well have more to do with cultural factors than any internal difference between female and male brains, but it is a fact and no matter what the cause it's hard to blame Silicon Valley.
Thus, without any oppressive or out-of-line practices by Big Tech, you might expect such companies to hire different numbers of men and women. As they do.
Then there's the matter of race, where there are different issues and problems. One which is largely beyond the scope of this article is the matter of equal access to education and training. But we can say for our purposes that it seems likely that non-white folks growing up in the USA get fewer chances to become expert engineers and coders. Therefore, if it is your aim to hire only the most expert engineers and coders, you will in general wind up hiring more white people than there are across the population - without yourself being discriminatory. That's a problem for wider US society, not Big Tech**.
Of course, Big Tech companies might also be discriminating on their own account: but if so, they're being fools to themselves, because they're creating an opportunity for a competitor. Gary Becker pointed out a long time ago that discrimination costs money. If I turn down a good coder simply because they've got the wrong interesting bits or the wrong colour skin (or choose another, worse one because bits and skin suit some arbitrary preference of mine) then that loses me money. And if everyone is systematically doing this then that good coder's going to be cheap for someone else to hire. And, assuming an actual market and the usual amount of human greed, someone will hire a load of good coders easily and cheaply, make a fortune and I will be poor or maybe even out of business.
Becker was originally talking about race when he made this argument. And people responded that no, it was the Jim Crow laws, the enforced discrimination, that meant that his market solution could not work. Becker came back with yes, of course, that's why the Jim Crow laws are there - another case of bad regulations spoiling markets. Even with Jim Crow the market did go some way toward solving it: those discriminated against moved north in vast numbers to where life was better if not quite perfect.
If there are legal barriers to women, or people whose necks don't turn red in the sun, working in the tech bits of the tech industry then yes, of course, we should tear those legal barriers down. And if there are external-to-the-industry cultural barriers then we should give serious thought and effort to changing those factors and giving everyone the same chance.
But if the "problem" is actually that not all that many women want to go and code for a living (something I well understand, I did it for a bit, macros in Lotus v 1.0 on an IBM XT and God I was bad at it. Didn't even know where to buy a packet of binary numbers to put into the machine) then, well, so what? Aren't we all supposed to be lauding personal choice these days?
And if the race issue lies not in Big Tech but elsewhere in US society (perhaps in the inner city school systems, for instance) why should Big Tech be held responsible - in many people's minds - for sorting it out?
It's really very difficult to think that the managers and execs of Silicon Valley genuinely give a, well, a hoot what colour or sex their employees are. These days you could be purple with green spots, your gender could be prokaryotic and your sexuality involve something with funghi and still the ability to code better than the next being would get you a desk and a bundle of restricted stock along with all the pale skinned nerds.
And the lovely thing is that we can actually test Becker's point, and someone actually has. Steve Shirley (aka Dame Stephanie) did exactly that in 1962 setting up FI Group, which deliberately and near exclusively hired female programmers. Made a fortune too, because back then you would have to say that managers and bosses in general really did care a lot about race and gender, much more than they cared about being good at their jobs.
So, anyone think that would work today? That you really could get good talent on the cheap because women (or whoever) are discriminated against?
Well, if you don't then Becker's argument runs the other way too. If it's not a path to riches then there's none of that discrimination there for you to exploit, is there? ®
It's probably important to note here that neither Tim nor the Register is attempting to say that racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are not problems or that they don't exist.
Tim IS trying to argue several things: a) that Silicon Valley is actually - in his estimation - less discriminatory than plenty of other American institutions, not more; b) that being corporately racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory is foolish as it will lead to bad market performance; and c) that a proper free market would therefore eliminate discrimination on its own without requiring any help from government, right-on boardrooms etc.
We here at the Register are a bit more sceptical about the existence of proper free markets in which all people act rationally than Tim is. We would say that a world in which Apple can make the largest quarterly profit in the history of capitalism largely off iPhone sales is not a world where people in the mass can be presumed to act rationally, even as an approximation.
We'd tend to agree that Silicon Valley bosses in general care a lot more about money and power than they do about the colour, sex and sexual preference of their employees: but that cuts both ways. In general they won't care about the fact that their employees are mostly white men until it starts to noticeably hurt their business, and they may just not notice the market effect Tim is talking about - especially if all the other companies are much the same ... -Ed
*Nutshell: there's more empathic brains and more systemising ones. Any individual can be anywhere on the spectrum but men tend to systemising end, women to empathising. Autism and the milder idea of nerds and geeks are what lies beyond mere systemising. Thus men are more likely to be engineers.
**And it is a problem for wider society, even if you don't personally care about justice: it hurts the US economy. Choosing your coders and so on, nationally, from a limited pool means that as a body they will be less good than the coders of nations that give everyone a chance and - all other things being equal - your nation will get its ass whupped economically over time.