Inside Silicon Valley’s struggle for diversity

Inside Silicon Valley’s struggle for diversity

After a brutal year full of desperate changes and constant criticism from users and investors, Twitter tried to end 2015 on a positive note by announcing the appointment of a new head of diversity who might finally help the company become as inclusive as the social network it operates.

And not a moment too soon: Just weeks earlier, Leslie Miley, the only black engineer in a leadership position at Twitter, was let go as part of a larger round of layoffs. He then publicly revealed a long series of frustrations with Twitter’s diversity efforts.

In particular, he lamented an executive’s ill-advised suggestion to solve the problem of too few non-white faces by “creating a tool” that would analyze job candidates’ last names to pinpoint ethnicities in the hiring pool.

“There was very little diversity in thought and almost no diversity in action,” Miley explained in a remarkably candid post about a hot button issue in Silicon Valley.

So it was that much more mind-boggling when Twitter, shamed by this issue in November, revealed its new head of diversity was… a white man.

The social network, long run by a board of all white men and a procession of CEOs who are white men, had disappointed again. The reactions were swift and damning.

“The choice of that particular person definitely matters,” says Monique Woodard, executive director of Black Founders, a non-profit focused on building opportunities in the technology world for black entrepreneurs. “The African American community loves to use Twitter, but we are not seeing the same makeup reflected in the company.”

Such is the challenge that the biggest names in tech face heading into 2016 as they look to prove to potential recruits, customers, legislators and, yes, themselves that Silicon Valley is more than just a bunch of white dudes wearing hoodies.

Like Twitter, many of the best known companies were founded by young white men who hired more of the same in their early days. As they expanded and matured, industry watchers say that simple fact left its imprint on each company’s DNA and hiring mentality. White men there early rose up the ranks and hired other people who went to school with them, worked with them, had the same background as them, looked like them.

Take one glance at the senior leadership chart for Apple, another company that has pushed publicly for greater diversity, and you’ll see the problem.

Two years ago, however, tech companies began releasing a steady drip of transparency reports shedding light on their gender and racial breakdowns. They earned praise for the transparency, but scrutiny for the disappointing numbers.

Since then, public and private tech companies have struggled to find the right roadmap to show momentum.

“To be honest, no one is really getting it right,” says Candice Morgan, who earlier this month was name the first head of diversity at Pinterest, a social bookmarking startup valued at $11 billion. “I think that intentions are good, but because this is a younger focus for this industry, all of us have a lot to do.”

Silicon Valley forced to re-program itself
Pinterest, or more accurately one of its few female engineers at the time, helped kickstart the conversation around greater transparency for diversity in tech with a single, critical post published on Medium in 2013.

“The actual numbers I’ve seen and experienced in industry are far lower than anybody is willing to admit,” Tracy Chou wrote at the time, calling for companies to release more diversity data. “But it’s hard for companies to admit that they’re working through any issues when they want to paint the rosy picture for recruiting.”

Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights activist, began showing up at shareholder meetings for each of the major publicly traded tech companies, calling for them publicize their diversity numbers. In 2014, Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo and Pinterest did just that, creating more pressure for the rest to follow in their footsteps.

Just as Chou anticipated, these reports shattered the industry’s long coveted “rosy picture.” Silicon Valley, the numbers showed again and again, is mostly white and mostly male.

“The first step of any 12-step program is acknowledging that we have a problem,” says Anne Toth, who oversees diversity efforts as VP of people and policy at Slack, the popular workplace messaging startup. It is one of the few private technology companies to disclose diversity numbers.

Acknowledging that problem, she says, represents a “sea change” for Silicon Valley, which has long pretended that anyone and everyone can get ahead on brains alone, omitting the fact that skin color, gender and age play a role. Tech industry employees must now re-program the way they think about their own success.

“In Silicon Valley, there’s a notion that we exist in a meritocracy. It assumes an even-playing field. It assumes everyone is being measured very quantitatively and analytically, and that success and achievement here is based on some uniform calculation,” Toth says. “I think what we’re starting to see now is that may not necessarily be true.”

As with most things in this industry, it required data to make a change.

“It was lack of awareness,” says Pat Wadors, SVP of global talent at LinkedIn, who launched the dialogue about diversity by presenting data on it to the CEO. “They didn’t know they had a problem until they saw it.”

Can you “disrupt” diversity?
Once the tech companies acknowledge they have a problem, they often turn to Joelle Emerson.

Emerson started her career as a women’s rights lawyer, but grew tired of focusing only on the fallout from workplace discrimination issues rather than the causes. In 2014, she launched Paradigm, a small organization that consults with businesses like Pinterest, Slack, Airbnb on building better diversity strategies.

The most common issue she sees when first meeting with these companies is as obvious as it is detrimental: there is simply no firm company-wide structure in place to determine the best way to interview job candidates, where to recruit from, how to set compensation and when to promote staffers.

“A lot of that lack of structure is going to be filled in with unconscious bias,” Emerson says. Much of the early diversity efforts have focused on this area.

Facebook tested the practice of interviewing at least one minority for certain positions to broaden the pool of candidates.

LinkedIn trained managers to be more mindful of performance evaluations, recognizing that women are sometimes more reluctant to raise their hands for promotions.

Pinterest began reviewing all of its job postings to eliminate phrases like “quarterback” and “rock star engineer,” which may unintentionally box out female candidates.

And Slack did away with seemingly benign interview questions (ex: “What do you do for fun?”), which could make candidates from certain backgrounds feel awkward.

For better or worse, nearly all the tech companies we spoke with have also done some form of unconscious bias training internally, which seek in a matter of hours to make staff members more aware of unintentional prejudices they’ve carried for years.

“Unconscious bias training is the hot thing right now. If you look at the research, there’s not much saying that training them to know they are biased will make them unbiased,” says Katherine Phillips, senior vice dean and a professor of leadership at Columbia Business School. Emerson counters that training can at least get staff to “act differently” even if they don’t “think differently.”

Diversity 2.0
Progress on the diversity front has been remarkably slow going, especially for an industry accustomed to the “move fast and break things” philosophy Facebook once touted as its motto.

Apple, for example, saw the percentage of black and female employees grow by just 1% each from 2014 to 2015.

“The bigger you get, the harder it becomes to put the ingredients in place,” Emerson says, expressing optimism for the precedent set by young businesses like Slack.”The earlier you start, you’re not having to go back and change processes and change culture.”

Size isn’t the only problem for Silicon Valley. There are also issues of thinking too narrowly about the problem.

“Whenever we talk to tech companies, at least in our initial conversations, they immediately cite the need to build a more inclusive engineering team. That’s great, but credibly committing to diversity within a company means doing a lot more,” says Porter Braswell, CEO and cofounder of Jopwell, a startup that helps companies recruit more diverse candidates. “It means looking at the engineers and beyond.”

Woodard, from Black Founders, echoes Braswell’s concern, noting that these companies must boost diversity among executives, not just engineers.

“If you can’t hire diverse talent at the top, it’s often very difficult to hire and retain diverse talent at other levels of the organization,” she says, “because the talent you’re bringing in the door doesn’t see anyone who has moved up the ladder and see a future for themselves at the company.”

Silicon Valley is willing and eager to “iterate” more with these diversity efforts — one of the industry’s favorite words and one used by Paradigm’s Emerson too — until it shows meaningful results just as it attempts to do with products.

Wadors at LinkedIn admits that she has not always communicated well with the homegrown employee resource groups that represent blacks, hispanics, women and other demographics LinkedIn wants to recruit and retain.

She’s now working to be clearer with them “about their role” helping to foster and maintain diversity.

Morgan, the new diversity chief at Pinterest, touted the company’s plans this year to go after underrepresented minorities through new internship and apprenticeship programs and recruiting applicants from a broader range of schools whose names don’t rhyme with Manford.

“A lot of industries are saying we really care about this, and many of them are genuine, but they just don’t know what to do, so they don’t give diversity and talent programs the proper support needed to make a difference,” Morgan says.

“If you are not actually investing in real accountability, getting leadership really looking at this as a business issue in the same way they are looking at marketing their products, there’s no follow through.”


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