In my last blog post, I wrote about how I’ve developed some new work habits after reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Applying the techniques have transformed how I approach challenging projects at work and in my spare time, and I’m reading, writing, and creating more than ever before.
Although Deep Work motivated me to change my habits, as I was reading the book, I noticed a quiet and persistent voice in my head telling me this style of work might not be for me. It only took me reading a couple of chapters to realize why. Throughout the book, Newport paints a picture of what deep work looks like by telling stories about successful individuals and how they work, and nearly every example was a white man. This made it hard for me to imagine myself doing deep work.
Curious if other people had noticed this, I did a quick internet search and found a few feminist blog posts pointing out the lack of women in the book, including an article by Dr. Inger Mewburn, director of research training at The Australian National University and author of the blog The Thesis Whisperer. She writes,
A far more disturbing element to the book for me was its gender politics. Almost every example featured a male protagonist to illustrate the virtues of deep work. Male scholars provided the primary theoretical ballast to Newport’s argument. I couldn’t help feeling that Newport had imbibed and regurgitated the unhelpful equation that deep work equals brilliance equals male. Women were present on the periphery, stranded in the shallows of Newport’s consciousness.
I agree, but unfortunately the feminist critques I found don’t mention the missing examples of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian people. In this piece, I will argue that mainstream self-help materials, especially those marketed for people who work in the tech industry, should include a wide representation of people of different races and ethnicities and genders. Second-wave feminism centers middle-class, cisgendered white women, and that perspective simply isn’t enough.
A note on my language: throughout this blog post, I will argue that it is important for Newport and his peers to consider the stories of BIPOC and white womxn. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. This term was created as a way to acknowledge how pervasive “Native invisibility, anti-Blackness and white supremacy” are in the United States, and seeks to center Black and Native people by placing them first in the acronym. I realize this term lumps together people of other ethnicities, but in the historic context the United States, I currently prefer this term to the one I used to favor, “people of color”. I will also be using the term white womxn, as a way to acknowledge cisgender and transgender women.
Historically, white, cisgendered women (myself included) have put their struggle for liberation ahead of BIPOC people, and as a small way to counteract this, I will advocate for first for BIPOC, and then white womxn.
Although I am being intentional about my language, it is imperfect. I do a poor job of of including people who are non-binary or gender-fluid, I don’t know if any of Newport’s examples are part of the LGBTQIA community, and I lump together Latinx people and Asian Americans as “people of color.” Furthermore, I don’t engage in a larger critique of the systems that enable the kinds of oppression I seek to alleviate. In spite of these flaws, I think it’s important to write about my concerns with Deep Work.
Presenting the Evidence
Deep Work was frustrating to read because nearly all of the examples of people who have been successful due to deep work are wealthy, white men. I have a lot of privilege: I’m a white, cisgendered womxn who attended college, I’m able-bodied, heterosexual, a US citizen, and I’m wealthy because I have a high-paying job in the tech industry. In spite of all the ways I share parts of my identify with Newport’s examples, I still felt that this style of work might not be for me because apparently so few womxn have done it. The lack of representation of BIPOC and white womxn was obvious to me, and extremely disappointing for an influential and mainstream self-help book.
After finishing the book, I skimmed the Notes section at the back to make a list of the examples Newport highlights. It’s possible I missed some, but even with a few omissions, the ratio of white men to everyone else is high. Here’s the list:
|Michel de Montaigne|
|J.K. Rowling (W)|
|David Heinemeier Hansson|
|Alissa Ruben (W)|
|Winifred Gallagher (W)|
|Santiago Gonzalez (BIPOC)|
|Henry David Thoreau|
|Baratunde Thurston (BIPOC)|
|Malcolm Gladwell (BIPOC)|
|Radhika Nagpal (W & BIPOC)|
Before Deep Work, Newport was known as a computer scientist and professor who wrote the Study Hacks blog, which describes how to use research-based study techniques to get good grades. His first book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is about how to craft a set of skills that will give you a fulfilling career. Deep Work launched Newport out of his corner of academia, and into the mainstream conversation about work and productivity. Newport and his editors at the Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group crafted the book so it would appeal to a wide audience, and that is why the lack of representation is disheartening.
Representation matters. First, it’s good business. If you’re writing books and you want to sell more, the stories you tell should encompass a large swath of people. People are drawn to narratives that allow them to imagine themselves as the main character, and although Deep Work is a non-fiction book, Newport features several protagonists to illustrate his arguments.
Throughout the book, Newport argues that being able to engage deep work improves the quality of your life because you will be able to master difficult skills and you will be able to find high-paying, rewarding work. It’s easy for people in positions of power to believe that this kind of economic mobility is available to anyone who lives in the United States and works hard enough, but it’s not true because of systems of racism and oppression that reduce housing, nutrition, and educational opportunities for Black people, Indegenious people and other people of color. If Newport had tried to find a more diverse set of examples, he probably would have been forced to slow down and do more research, which may have led him to consider the historical and sociological reasons why wealthy white men have had the greatest opportunities to engage in his kind of deep work.
The other reason I’m troubled by Newport’s inability to name the privilege required for deep work is that he is an academic, and although Deep Work is for a general audience, he is a professor who has a lot of influence over his students, and as a computer science researcher, his ideas impact the tools and processes we adopt as software architects and programmers. If you’re curious, Newport studies the theory of distributed systems and peer to peer networks. You can find his academic work here: http://people.cs.georgetown.edu/~cnewport/.
I realize that Newport isn’t a social scientist, but it is time for him, and other influential computer scientists, to publicly muse on why the tech industry is predominantly white and male. The consequence of this homogeneity is that tech products, and the programming languages and frameworks we use to build those products, are built with a limited perspective. The societal implications are real, like Twitter being unable to meaningfully address abuse on the platform, Amazon’s facial recognition system, Rekognition, is unable to reliably identify “female faces and of darker-skinned faces in photos,” and racial bias is present in algorithms that are designed for providing healthcare.
If I had the opportunity to have this conversation with Newport, I would show some him some examples of storytelling that highlights BIPOC and white womxn. The first is Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson. In the book, Thompson describes the history of computer programming, and how we have arrived at the current state of software development as a profession. He includes a chapter about how women dominated programming when mainframe computers first became commonplace at government institutions and universities, and another chapter about why there are so few womxn in software today. Thompson interviewed a lot of people for the book, and he includes Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American people and white womxn. The other is the first season of the Netflix documentary series Explained by Vox, which explores several topics, including a few related to structural inequity. The show leverages a diverse set of hosts and interviewees, and the variety of perspectives gives more depth to the arguments presented in the show. Both of these are written or executive-produced by white men, so I would also recommend materials written from an underrepresented perspective like A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin. I realize all of these materials have been released since the initial publication of Deep Work in 2016.
If Newport invited me edit the second edition of Deep Work, I would encourage him to include the following people who are prolific in their fields, and have mastered their version of deep work:
- bell hooks
- Roxane Gay
- Louise Erdrich
- Robin Máxkii
- Brian Fox (note: In the 1980s and 90s, Fox worked with the Free Software Foundation and on GNU, both organizations that have done a poor job of addressing the sexist behavior and removal of Richard Stallman)
Reading Deep Work changed how I operate, and I’m glad I’ve spent time practicing the techniques described in the book, because I’m more able to focus on projects and get them done. My gratitude for Newport’s book, however, sits next to my disappointment that the examples he chose to highlight are a heterogeneous group, and it makes me wonder if there is more than one kind of deep work, or different ways of being highly productive.
Right now, Newport is one of the most influential voices in our discussions about work, focus, and becoming less addicted to our smartphones. I haven’t read Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism, but I hope that a second edition of Deep Work will be published and include an honest representation of the kinds of people who are reading the book.