Let’s Celebrate 2015 as a Year of Progress in Tech Inclusion

Let’s Celebrate 2015 as a Year of Progress in Tech Inclusion

Following years of discussion that seemed to have left us spiraling around the same talking points and jargon, 2015 marked a change in how we think about fostering a more inclusive tech environment.

For one thing, we have stepped away from talking about diversity and toward the more, well, inclusive tech inclusion. Along those same lines, 2015 was a year in which people grew frustrated with the frame of “women in tech” and shifted the focus toward inclusion of all underrepresented groups, not just (predominately white) women. With diversity on the wane, intersectionality and equity featured heavily in conversations about how to make workplaces more comfortable for people who aren’t young, white, male techies.

In 2013 and 2014, the tech industry focused on identifying the scope of the problem. People like Tracy Chou at Pinterest worked to get companies to disclose their distressing employment numbers. Thanks to those efforts, in 2015 we learned that most major firms had failed to move the needle in a significant way. Google, Cisco, and Intel all had fewer women (by percentage) in 2014 than in 2013; Cisco also had fewer nonwhite employees in 2014 than in 2013. And despite committing to improving, Facebook didn’t add more nonwhite or Asian staff from 2014 to 2015. Twitter, the platform that helped amplify the Black Lives Matter movement, made public that it only has 49 black people on staff. But the news is still good: While in the past we had to push just to learn the size of the problem, in 2015 we moved on to talking about tangible things the tech sector can do to start closing the gap. Here are some of the trends that made this a remarkable year.

Rethinking the pipeline
For several years, companies and government have focused a lot of attention on the “pipeline” problem—trying to get more school-aged kids from underrepresented groups interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. While those efforts are very important, the focus in 2015 shifted to the problem of retention, or how to plug the leaky pipe. People who left tech began to speak up about problems they faced that forced them out as a caution to the leading pipeline narrative. Joan Williams continued reporting on her research showing why STEM fields can be alienating to people from underrepresented groups and pointing to ways to address those issues. If we want to get more minorities into tech, we need to make sure they’ll be welcome and supported once they get there. This is a complex problem to solve, which is going to call for everyone to step up and own how they impact the culture of their organization. We have already started to see examples emerge about creating office norms that are inclusive of many different perspectives, and I expect that we will continue to see an increase in these discussions in 2016.

The rise of the chief diversity officer
As large tech companies started sharing the dismal numbers of employees from underrepresented groups, they realized they needed to add capacity to work on the problem. In 2015 a new job title started popping up: the chief diversity officer. Tech companies like Airbnb and DropBox started advertising for chief diversity officers. Of course, that’s just the first step. To be successful, these new officers need internal support from leadership at the companies, and how much they will receive remains a real question.

A boost in resources
Businesses and foundations started investing large sums in inclusion efforts. In January, Intel pledged $300 million to address its lack of diversity and made increasing diversity part of the compensation review criteria for leaders. Apple announced it was giving $40 million to support historically black colleges and universities, as well as $10 million to the National Center for Women in Information Technology. Kapor Capital, the Level Playing Field Institute, and Kapor Center for Social Inclusion are committing an additional $40 million over three years to increase inclusive entrepreneurship.

Fewer anecdotes, more action
Tech conference organizers in 2015 were interested in shifting the conversation from the (far too many) stories of bias that people from underrepresented groups experienced in tech, and much more interested in sharing tangible things industry can do better. Conferences started producing white papers and forming working groups. The inaugural Tech Inclusion conference in September was a welcome addition to the conference circuit, bringing together a diverse group of people and tackling some angles, like policy, that other conferences don’t tend to highlight.

Taking stock
Another promising 2015 trend was companies bringing in consultants to help them track the success of their initiatives. Pinterest and Slack contracted companies like Paradigm and Vaya to follow their efforts and start using metrics to see where they were losing candidates from underrepresented groups in the hiring process. Hopefully this tracking will help them correct the parts of the system that are failing these job candidates.

Attention from D.C.
The lack of diversity in Silicon Valley struck a chord with policymakers, who started trying to tackle the problem from Washington. The Obama administration launched several initiatives to support increased training, hiring, and to get companies to commit to improving their numbers.

On the Hill, the Congressional Black Caucus announced the CBC Tech 2020 initiative, with an aim of preparing more black Americans to help fill the impending tech talent gap projected for 2020. In January, my former employer, Engine, started the Diversifying Tech Caucus, with a goal of educating policymakers about the problem, highlighting academic research, and sharing solutions being piloted by businesses.

There’s so much to celebrate from 2015, and I’m hopeful that in 2016 we’ll see a continuation of these positive trends: increased learning from other sectors, fully empowered diversity officers, and more emphasis on how to make the tech sector a welcoming place for people to develop their careers.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.