Both the worlds of art and diversity are run predominantly by straight white men, and a few organizations like Out in Tech are trying to do something about it by promoting diversity in the world of tech. Out in Tech brings the LGBTQ+ and the tech communities together. Last November 14, the organization had an event at art gallery Lehmann Maupin's new Chelsea space as lesbian artist Catherine Opie's exhibition The Modernist hung at the gallery. That night, Out in Tech announced a new initiative that connects LGBTQ+ youth, particularly those who are people of color, to internships in the tech world. I asked George Wells, the COO of Lehmann Maupin board member of Out in Tech, about the problem with diversity in the worlds of art and tech, and what can be done to facilitate change.
Why do you think there is such a lack of diversity in the worlds of art and tech?
It’s a circular problem, people of color were historically barred from white collar, highly skilled, and high paying jobs to begin with, as society has changed, those that do enter the field don’t find mentorship amongst people that can identify with their particular challenges because they simply aren’t there. Then it repeats, with only very incremental change if it’s not addressed outright. You need connections, and specific knowledge, and it’s very difficult for young people to demonstrate they have the aptitude early on, without mentorship. The key is early access to apprenticeship type opportunities. As a minority, you have to be twice as prepared, and without someone to guide and advocate for you, you’re on your own to prove it.
Galleries like Lehmann Maupin, where I joined as COO this year, represent a business within the art world that has identified how the system has failed artists, in particular, and made a conscious decision to develop their program around diverse artists. The result is a program including Gilbert & George, Catherine Opie, and Mickalene Thomas, which are actually very much in line, though vastly different people and artists. Strength in diversity is such a cliché at this point, but it's actually true. Do you want to be another gallery, or another start up, with only white men—a strategy that will lose you the future, by the way—or do you want to be different and change the face of the industry?
What are some ways hiring managers can start changing that?
One way is to start listening to the employees that already work at a given company or organization. One in four LGBTQ employees report having experienced discrimination in the past five years. Asking women, people of color, LGBTQ people, older employees — do they feel included and valued? If not, what could be different? In other words, if there are red flags with a company’s culture, then job candidates will be able to sniff that out during an interview process. I highly recommend that hiring managers start using the programs available that allow you to review resumes without names, to avoid race and gender bias. We all hold perceptions and misconceptions, and we should acknowledge this and learn to work around it, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Finally, partner with organizations like Out in Tech who are working to address the systemic inequality in tech — AfroTech, Grace Hopper Celebration (the largest celebration for women in computing), and /dev/color to empower Black software engineers. These groups do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of finding and mentoring candidates, so it’s a win for everyone.
What are some ways the worlds of art and tech can benefit from one another?
Art and technology are both the fields that shape the 21st century. Artists ask our most crucial questions about status quo, perception, and reality. They challenge us to adapt to new forms, new perspectives, and new ideas. Also, it’s just an increasingly visual landscape in terms of how we access information, and form opinions and ideas, and artists are well adept at facilitating this. Technology fulfills our most pressing needs, in some cases addressing them before we realized what was lacking. It has shaped every aspect of our daily lives—how we receive information, communicate, feel connection to our communities and loved ones. I think both arenas will grow increasingly closely aligned, to the benefit of all of us. The future presents some incredibly big challenges, and these will require creativity, a range of perspectives and experiences, and a unique knowledge base to address.
How is the organization contributing to diversity in the workplace?
Out in Tech's goal is to unite LGBTQ+ tech community by creating opportunities for our 20,000 members to advance their careers, grow their networks, and leverage tech for social change. Specifically, we inspire queer and questioning youth to explore the tech industry, we support LGBTQ+ activists worldwide by building WordPress.comwebsites and digital assets, and we develop aspiring LGBTQ+ techies by hosting over 75 local events annually to bring people together in real life. We believe this will lead to more equitable and inclusive workplaces for all underrepresented groups; innovative new ideas, products, and platforms; and a more just future, built by and for our interconnected global community.
Why is it so important to start with internships in terms of increasing diversity?
I draw a lot from my personal experience, where I started my career on Wall Street through a program aimed at placing minorities in internships. Through dozens of conversations with HR leaders across the country about the lack of diversity in tech, we came to realize that it’s less a "pipeline problem” as we too often hear, and more a problem of will. Rather than having every tech company fight over the same candidates from the most elite (read: privileged) institutions, why not expand the search to include the abundance of brilliant youth currently enrolled at CUNY, where the majority of NYC public school students attend? Moreover, when hiring inexperienced talent like interns, I challenge the idea that Harvard or Stanford have a monopoly on promising talent. This kind of flawed thinking is precisely what perpetuates the lack of diversity in tech. In late high school and early college, respectfully, no one is qualified to do much of anything! So the next time your office gives an internship to the founder’s neighbor’s kid, think about the opportunity cost of that hiring decision vis-a-vis workforce diversity.
During our benefit night at Lehmann Maupin on November 14th, we will be announcing our Out in Tech Fellows. Piloting this summer, the program is meant to help lower the barrier to entry for LGBTQ-identifying youth into tech careers. Thanks to generous support from the Dow Jones Foundation and hundreds of individual donors, we'll place a dozen interns across tech companies to chip away at tech’s diversity problem while simultaneously creating economic opportunity for an underestimated population. If your company is interested to help us grow this work, please visit http://bit.ly/OITgive. To apply to hire an Out in Tech Fellow, please visit outintech.com. We will also be hiring the next interns at Lehmann Maupin this winter, so please look out for those opportunities as well!