Silicon Valley Still Has a Diversity Problem

Last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited Silicon Valley to assess how companies such as Twitter, Apple, Lyft, PayPal and other tech heavyweights are doing in their efforts to hire and retain diverse candidates.

Judging from what some members had to say, the overall impression was “not so good.”

“I’m about to hit some people across the head with a hammer,” said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), a CBC member, during a panel discussion held at Lyft’s headquarters, describing herself as “floored” that the number of black employees at many Silicon Valley companies has yet to exceed 2 percent. “I’m talking about using the power that our voters have given us to produce legislation and to talk about regulation in these industries that have not been talked about before.”

The tech industry has been under criticism for a long time about the shockingly low numbers of black and Hispanic employees within its ranks. Back in 2014, Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. met with leaders from Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, among others, to ask them to hire more diverse employees. Four years later, strikingly little progress has been made: market-research firm IHS Markit finds that just 3 percent of the nation’s tech workforce is black while 57 percent is white, reports Barron’s. The Kapor Center for Social Impact finds that whites hold 53 percent of technical roles and blacks only 3 percent.

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The industry’s pledges to increase employee diversity are nothing new. In 2016, 30 tech companies pledged to make their workforce demographics more similar to that of the nation. Facebook and Google have for years publicly pledged to make their employee base more diverse, but with relatively little to show for their efforts (last year Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Facebook’s diversity efforts were being undercut by a small group of hiring managers.)

Jori Ford, senior director for content and SEO at G2 Crowd, a review site for business and software, says efforts such as Google’s and Facebook’s are the wrong approach. By regularly publishing their lack of progress in hiring diversity, she says, they’re only serving to reinforce the notion that black and Hispanic candidates have little chance of being hired at such companies.

“If someone told you you had a one in one-million chance of winning the Lotto, and you were risk-averse, how likely would you be to play Lotto?” says Ford. “By saying they’ve once again missed the mark, Google is inadvertently discouraging diverse candidates. At the end of the day, when you make stats out of people, then people feel like stats.”

Ford, whose own ethnic heritage is black and Korean and who grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side, says a more constructive approach would be for the companies to highlight their efforts to combat unconscious bias, build talent pipelines in diverse communities and forge partnerships with community organizations to put tech careers in better reach of under-represented groups.

“What you need to do is to not ‘tokenize’ people, but expose how you’re ensuring that everyone is interacted with equally and is on the same playing field regardless of their color or gender,” she says.

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As a woman of color working in the tech industry, Ford has her own experience to draw on for ways that companies can operate differently. At a previous tech employer, she says she was initially made to feel welcome upon her first few days of work. As the week went on, however, an accumulation of small but telling incidents made her feel uncomfortable. A colleague who asked her where she was from remarked “Isn’t that a poor neighborhood?” A senior leader, noting Ford’s ethnicity, said “Well, you check all the boxes — I guess we don’t have to hire anyone else.”

“I don’t think his intent was to hurt or berate me, but the fact that he felt it was OK to say this to me and no one else took corrective action about it was pretty disappointing,” she says.

Ford says she feels much more comfortable at her current employer, where all candidates are required to complete an aptitude test as part of the hiring process. “The result is that no one is going to judge you on anything but merit and capability,” she says.

Companies that want to hire and retain diverse candidates should partner with third-party groups to evaluate their processes and suggest ways to present a more welcoming environment, says Ford.

“That outside perspective can be really helpful,” she says.

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Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.