Obama’s top tech adviser takes fight for Silicon Valley diversity to Washington

Obama’s top tech adviser takes fight for Silicon Valley diversity to Washington

The nation’s chief technology officer bounds into the cavernous U.S. Capitol Visitors Center with the fresh eyes of a tourist and immediately notices that few of the statues are of women.

“I always notice these things because they send a message,” said Megan Smith, just nine months into her job as President Obama’s top policy adviser on technology.

The message is that women aren’t a big part of American history. And subtle as it may be, the impression feeds into a vast reservoir of cultural signals that ultimately hold women back, she says.

In many ways, Smith is still a tourist in a foreign land. After years leading Google’s most futuristic projects, she’s in her first government job — where she was handed a Blackberry and Dell computer.

“I like the Blackberry, it’s cool,” she insisted. “It has good battery life, and I like the radio.”

She hasn’t brought Google Glasses or an Apple Watch into the Oval office, but she’s carried over her advocacy for more diversity in the technology industry. Now, as Obama’s chief adviser on technology policies, she’s trying to bring workforce inequality to the attention of the highest levels of government.

The problem has taken new urgency with another round of embarrassing workforce data released in recent days by tech’s leading firms. Despite splashy promises to pour more resources and attention into recruiting women and minorities, the work forces at Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple haven’t changed. Women make up less than 20 percent of employees, Hispanics hold about 5 percent of jobs, and blacks are particularly under-represented at below 2 percent of those work forces.

Tech companies are now willing to admit their dismal track record with hiring and promoting women and under-served minorities. Still, despite promises to do better, only those that make it a top priority will see progress. And perhaps the biggest problems — ones that can’t be solved through technological fixes alone — are the hard-set, unconscious biases that are spread throughout the culture.

She recently introduced special screenings of the documentary “Code: Disrupting the Gender Gap” at the State Department and on Capital Hill. Smith, who appears the film, told an audience of hundreds gathered at the Capitol building that the diversity problem in Silicon Valley could weigh down on the entire nation. The following is an interview Smith gave before the filming that has been edited for clarity and length:

Q: Silicon Valley’s latest numbers are really bad. Why can’t an industry that’s so good at solving problems figure this one out?

Megan Smith: The industry has been doing a good job of proactively publishing data, and we have a long way to go, but it feels like a real turning point moment. Diversity will make better products. There are really interesting studies that show the financial performances of companies with diverse management teams are just better. So for responsibility to shareholders, it’s quite important to have a diverse team. It’s nobody’s fault, but there are extraordinary unconscious biases that exist and that we have to figure out how to overcome.

Q: What are some examples of those biases and how have you seen them play out in other parts of the economy?

Smith: It’s across the board. There is research that shows if there are 10 characteristics for a job, on average women will apply if they have seven and men will apply if they have three. So it’s either genetic or socialized, but we are telling our boys to just try and telling our girls to be more prepared. We need to help managers see the breadth of talent in front of them and be really mindful of unconscious biases they may have. The human mind needs to make decisions with imperfect information. That’s the way our brains work. So biases will just be part of any decision we make. One of the big research fields right now is how to mitigate bias, and there are software tools being created and other things that can help address this challenge.

Q: Google, Facebook and Apple have all announced programs and funding into diversity efforts. But still, they can’t move the needle on their diversity stats.

Smith: I think it’s a leadership issue. The companies that are taking the time to put this in their top priorities are making extraordinary progress. Intel has really turned their attention to this and are doing this from the CEO and executive team levels. In the 1990s, IBM under Lou Gerstner turned around IBM by doing very specific things. He organized each of his direct leaders to be executive sponsors of employee research groups, which included groups on women, veterans and LBGT employees. He gave the leaders budgets and told them to have regular meetings and to find out from employees what they needed to thrive. What he was doing was crowd-sourcing the diversity of IBMers for ideas, and it was an amazingly brilliant management move.

Q: These are good case studies, which again makes me wonder why tech’s hottest companies aren’t drawing from these lessons.

Smith: I’m not sure, but I think unconscious bias is there. Companies like Intel, who put it in their top priorities, are making progress. I think it is companies’ priorities but [that it] hasn’t moved into the top priorities so that it is something the CEOs are talking about constantly. That is something the research shows works — that if your leadership team is constantly talking about it and iterating on it just like they would on products and businesses, that will move the needle.

Q: The companies point the blame on the educational pipeline. What are the problems there?

Smith: At universities, the ones that have really opened the space for innovation are making progress. Harvey Mudd under the leadership of Maria Klawe has increased the percent of women graduates by really digging into the roots of why women weren’t staying in computer science and why the pipeline was so leaky… They also spent time thinking about curriculum and making sure questions weren’t about things like science fiction and things that were brogrammer topics but challenges that were of broad interest to anyone.

On the K-12 level, there are real challenges. Seventy percent of computer science teachers think boys are better than girls, so we have to support them to overcome their bias.

Q: The worst numbers are among hiring of blacks and Hispanics. Why are those numbers so low?

Smith: In venture capital, three percent of venture funding is going to women and less than one percent to people of color. People across the country have extraordinary ideas for startups. We need to leverage that talent on behalf of our economic future. We need to support VCs to overcome their biases.


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