This 60-year-old photo says a lot about diversity in technology

This amazing portrait of my mother-in-law’s 1954 IBM computer training class couldn’t paint a clearer picture.

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As you’re no doubt aware, the lack of diversity in the technology industry has been quite the hot topic over the last week or so. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella thoughtlessly telling female workers to trust that Karma would bring them the raises they deserve set off a firestorm of criticism and online discussion.

The controversy could ultimately be a good thing if it leads to real changes in women’s opportunities and treatment in the workforce. But despite all the discussion, I’m not confident that we’re about to be make real strides in diversity anytime soon.

Every picture tells a story

Take a look at the above photo of an IBM Type 70 EDPM programming class from way back in 1954.

The lone woman among all the white men in the picture is my mother in law. She doesn't recall thinking about the make up of the class at the time, but says the issue is obvious when she looks at the picture now.

As NPR’s All Tech Considered recently pointed out, women had a lot to do with the early days of programming, but seldom get much credit. Much has changed, but much has not.

When today’s female engineers look around their offices and classrooms, they’re keenly aware that after all these years, they still represent only a small fraction of the total, still get paid less for doing the same work as men, and still find themselves shut out of many organizations that may perhaps pay lip service to the idea of diversity, but make their actual hiring decisions on the basis of the bros they know.

Grass-roots change is needed

High-minded sermons from CEOs and pundits aren't going to change that. The goal may be a day when everyone gets equal treatment and opportunity in an organic fashion, but getting there is going to take a grass-roots attitude adjustment. This situation can’t be addressed only by specific hiring initiatives and training programs like Code.org, Girls Who Code, and the many others designed to encourage women and minorities to become programmers—though those things are necessary, too.

What it will take is for every tech company—from startups to enterprises—to pay attention to the issue every time they make a hiring decision. Every time. Not just when it’s convenient or when the company’s diversity report happens to be a public relations black eye.

The transition won’t be easy. In the real world, it often seems easier to do things the way they've always been done and leave the big-picture implications to others. But we've all got to make the effort if we want this picture to become a charming bit of nostalgia instead of a damning reminder of how long the tech industry has let diversity issues fester.

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