Revolutionize the Revolutionaries: Disrupting the Mirror-tocracy of Tech Startups

Google Communications Manager Robin Moroney (left) playing Foosball with an employee.

Google Communications Manager Robin Moroney (left) playing Foosball with an employee.

 

That jobs in technology services are in vogue is hard to dispute. In 2009, of the 56 million people over the age of 25 who earned bachelors degrees, nearly 20 million of them were in STEM fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of employed software developers alone is expected to grow by about 72 percent between 2010 and 2020. The salary associated with these jobs makes them hard to resist: in 2011, the median income for a software developer was around $95,000. But with all of this growth and interest in computer systems related jobs, the greatest barrier to entering these industries may be the businesses themselves.

From the get-go, breaking into a tech startup is an esoteric nightmare. In lieu of traditional interview processes, these tech-startups, primarily endowed to young white and asian men, have replaced the suit and tie and hand shaking with a “hang-out” style interview that displays a clear disconnect between companies and their applicants. A blog entry by Jason Freedman of San Francisco startup 42floors (where according to their website he is employed as “The Director of Vibes”) perhaps illustrates this best:

I asked her how she was doing in the interview process and she said, “I’m actually still trying to get an interview.”

“That’s weird.” I told her. “I thought you had already met with them a few times.”

“Well, I grabbed coffee with the founder, and I had dinner with the team last night, and then we went to a bar together.”

I chuckled. She was clearly confused with the whole matter. I told her, “Look, you just made it to the third round”.

It’s clear that employers don’t believe the onus is on them to change their interview process even if it’s mired in complicated practices exclusive to their bubble. This isn’t to say that being able to hang out with your fellow employees is a bad thing, but with an interview process like this imagine who falls through the cracks; what if the applicant doesn’t drink? What if the applicant commutes or takes the bus and can’t make time to get coffee on a whim? What if the applicant were a single mother who has to be home to feed her children and can’t spend her night getting dinner and drinks with a bunch of 20-somethings?

This interview process exemplifies what has been called the “Mirror-tocracy” of tech startups. Hiring Managers and Investors alike have employed these tactics to weed out non-desirable business opportunities because they can’t see the personal value in the people or things they are evaluating. The inevitable fallout has been a highly racialized and gendered field of tech startups that does not accurately represent the populations who hold these degrees. The problem was exemplified by a 2011 incident in which TechCrunch founder and self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Michael Arrington said “I don’t know any black entrepreneurs”, a quote that  incited serious backlash from black startups that felt that Silicon Valley was purposefully not funding black-led projects for not fitting  the bill. Technology Consultant Anjuan Simmons retorted Arrington’s statement, saying “Since the industry has historically been composed of white males, this is the demographic that has reached the upper echelons of the industry, and they tend to hire, fund, and mentor the people they know: other white males.”

The Mirror-tocracy is perhaps best explained using Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of Cultural Capital. Cultural capital, as Bourdieu described it, are non-financial assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Cultural capital can assume many forms; style of speech, how one dresses, or physical appearance  can all be forms of cultural capital.  Cultural Capital is evaluated on what Bourdieu describes as “fields”, an arena in which different forms of cultural capital are pitted against one another to determine which forms of capital are considered viable or valuable to the field. For example, certain assets like formal dress and professional demeanor may be deemed valuable in a traditional office setting, however in a tech startup these forms of capital are not seen as valuable. Cultural capital how you let other people on the “field” know  that you can walk the walk and talk the talk, and before you can even prove yourself in the work environment. Think of it this way: you could be the best soccer player in the world, but if you go on the field in ice skates, they won’t even let you play.

“The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible.” This quote by Paypal founder Max Levchin encompasses the ethos of the Silicon Valley hiring process. In the same speech, Max Levchin describes a case in which his company turned down a stunningly qualified applicant because he said in his free time he liked to play “hoops”. It was this choice of language, Levchin says, that let him know that this applicant wouldn’t be able to “hang” — in his own words, “No PayPal people would ever have used the world ‘hoops.'” Tech startups want employees that look, speak, and act like they do above all else, and as such have created a pseudo-meritocracy not based on knowledge of the job or the field, but knowledge of the culture.

This desire or homogeneous work environments, though perhaps convenient in the short-term, fly in the face of research suggesting that diversity is a good indicator of technological growth. If tech startups plan to capitalize on the large growth of computer service industries in the next 4 years, employers and investors are going to need a serious reality check about who they employ and how they employ them, lest they find themselves on the outside looking in.

 

Black Women & The Labor Movement: Racialized/Gendered Consciousness as Class Consciousness

“African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, and class oppression. But portraying Black women solely as passive, unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse stifles notions that Black women can actively work to change our circumstances and bring about changes in our lives.” – Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

To say that Organized Labor in the United States is facing a crisis is an understatement. In 2014, unionized labor accounted for only 11.1% of the American workforce, down from 20.1% in 1983. Even back in 2005, SEIU International Executive Vice President Gerry Hudson was quoted as saying that the U.S. “labor movement is becoming dangerously close to being too small to matter.” And while men’s participation in unions has been falling steeply over the past 30 years, black women are now making up the majority of newly organized workers, and more importantly, trying to take the reins in regards to leading and organizing worker’s movements.

As unionization rates for men continue to decline, women are projected to make up the majority of the organized labor force by 2030. Such a shift opens a window of opportunity for more women in leadership positions, and similarly new strategies for collective bargaining educated by women’s experiences.

Alicia Garza is one such organizer. Garza, who additionally is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, is the leader of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, an Atlanta-based group of 53 affiliate organizations that encompasses over 20,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly in 36 cities and 17 states. Since its inception in 2007, the NDWA has fought to secure federal labor law protections such as mandatory minimum wage and maternity leave for domestic workers, 23% of whom makes less than the federal minimum wage according to the NDWA’s website. The NDWA has been successful in instituting a domestic worker’s “Bill of Rights” in six states, securing these basic protections. Their push was also integral in the federal court of appeals’ decision to reinstate these pay rules at the federal level in 2015, a move which was estimated to have affected over 2 million domestic workers. In an interview with NBC news, Garza said that “there was a time when black labor was robust and really transformed the landscape of the labor movement in this country. We’re working on getting that back.”

As Garza notes, the historical context of black women’s organization in the workforce is not to be understated. Gender and  race theorist Patricia Hill Collins’ seminal work Black Feminist Thought, Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment describes the propensity for black women to subvert oppressive power structures using a standpoint, or lens, that is particular to black women. As

Collins describes it in Black Feminist Thought, it was (and is) through racial segregation in housing, education, and  employment that black women created their own kinship networks in which they create their own collective wisdom. A major aspect of this epistemology, says Collins, is a “recurring humanist vision”; “whether we advocate working through autonomous Black women’s organizations, becoming part of women’s organizations, running for political office…African-American women intellectuals repeatedly identify political actions such as these as a means for human empowerment (Collins, 1990).”

But as black women begin to bolster the unionized labor force, they are finding it harder to see their visions actualized. Although women are

Black women have been integral to the SEIU's #fightfor15 campaign, an intra-trade  endeavor for a decent living wage.

Black women have been integral to the SEIU’s #fightfor15 campaign, an intra-trade endeavor for a decent living wage.

beginning to dominate unionized labor, less than three percent have held an elected position in a union, and less than five percent have been the president of their union or labor organization. Organizations led by black women such as the NDWA and many others outlined by the Institute for Policy Studys’ And Still I Rise campaign have made the implementation of black women in leadership positions a cornerstone of their mission, arguing that union leadership demographics should match union’s membership demographics; The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2014 black women accounted for 12.2 percent of union membership compared to 10.1 percent for white women, 8.9 percent for Latinas, and 11.8 percent for Asian women.

This mission seems doubly astute in light of research by Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner which illustrates that the most successful unions are fronted by women of color. One respondent to a national survey conducted by And Still I Rise perhaps put it best: “The current leadership needs to understand that we are not trying to replace anyone already at the table. We want those already at the table to move over so we have a seat at the table.”

 

Service with a Smile: The True Cost of ‘Faking It’

Ever find yourself hung over at a diner at 7am, desperate to get as many hashbrowns and cups of burnt coffee into your body as fast as possible? When the waiter comes over and happily tries striking up a conversation have you ever wanted to suplex him through the nearest table like you were a WWE tag team champion? Well, have some sympathy for that  overjoyed waiter; he’s just doing his job.

This “service with a smile” mentality has been an increasingly prominent part of workplace behavior, where simply being polite isn’t enough anymore. This “emotional labor”, the fancy academic word for this obnoxious inflated happiness, adds a second dimension to work in which employees now must regulate their emotions on top of performing their duties.

The term “emotional labor” first famously appeared in Arlie Russel Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, in which Hochschild sought to theorize the effects of emotional labor on employees.  Though Hochschild acknowledged that humans regulate their emotions in their private interactions, such as acting happy around friends even if we’re having an off day, she wanted to understand how emotional regulations conducted as a part of one’s job were different than private regulations. Using two groups, flight attendants who were supposed to be “nicer than natural” and debt collectors who were supposed to be “nastier than natural”, Hochschild illustrated that emotionally performative workers began to feel estranged from their expressions (e.g. “smiling” or “grimacing”) as well as their emotions. These findings were dire, because as Hochschild points out, one-third of american men and one-half of american women are engaged in jobs that require emotional labor.

Current sociological and psychological research corroborates Hochschild’s findings. One such study suggests that sales and marketing employees who performed emotional labor felt less capable of addressing issues at home (emotional labor accounted for 28% of the variation in work-to-family interference). The same study found that respondents found that emotional labor were less satisfied with their jobs; about 15% of variation in work satisfaction scores was attributed to emotional labor. Another, more indirect, cost of emotional labor, is that people who exert more false emotions in the workplace finds themselves more exhausted, which has been shown to increased business turnover rates (1)(2).

Emotional labor doesn’t just result in psychological strain, however; some studies have suggested that emotional labor can have psychosomatic symptoms as well. In Driving it Home: How Workplace Emotional Labor Harms Employee Home Life, the authors surveyed 78 bus drivers from the american midwest, and similar to the pieces mentioned above tested for emotional exhaustion and work-to-family interference, but added an extra variable; insomnia. Similarly, the authors found that bus drivers who feigned a smile were more likely to be emotionally exhausted and had trouble addressing issues at home, but in addition had greater bouts of insomnia than those who were not faking smiles. The authors describe these issues of insomnia as a side effect of “state anxiety”, a state of nervousness or discomfort instigated by the autonomic nervous  system.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like emotional labor is going anywhere anytime soon; for every person who couldn’t care less about how happy their server is, there’s an angry old man on Red Lobster’s Facebook page complaining about their rude waiter. As a way to quell the negative psychological backlash of emotional work, Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey says that emotional labor should be abolished. Instead, she argues, greater onus should be placed on organizations, managers, and even customers to foster positive workplace environments and an authentically happy employees. What a concept, right?

 
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