Tech, Diversity, and Alternative Facts

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It is no secret that tech has a diversity problem. The white male dominated industry has systematically excluded women and people of color (most notably Black and Latinx) since, well…forever. While some tech executives are committed to achieving balance in the industry that is driving us into the future, a good number of their colleagues appear to believe that things are fine just the way they are.

Recently, collaboration software company Atlassian Inc. surveyed more than 1,400 frontline tech workers across the nation in an effort to get their unfiltered and unrehearsed views on the industry’s diversity and inclusion efforts. A soul-crushing 94 percent of those surveyed gave the industry, their companies, and their teams a passing or better grade on diversity.  Aubrey Blanche, the chief diversity officer for Atlassian stated,

“Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women are so underrepresented that people have lost the ability to perceive what balance is.”

The generally accepted data suggest that just about 2 percent of the tech workforce is Black and 3 percent Latinx, while 24 percent of the technical workforce identifies as female. Despite these poor showings, we witness typical “good ol’ boy” sentiment, with 83 percent of survey respondents believing that their company is already diverse and giving the industry an ‘A’ for effort.

These delusions come as no surprise to me and many of my Black and Latinx colleagues who have attempted to climb the proverbial ladder. Even those who have managed to make inroads are all too familiar with the dismissive attitudes that pervade “tech bro” culture. In a recent interview African American entrepreneur Tristan Walker was asked if he’s witnessed any improvement in Silicon Valley. The Walker & Company Brands founder stated,

“It’s the same as two years ago. Maybe this is a contrarian view, maybe it’s not, but I don’t think anything has changed.”

The data back him up. In that same survey, 20 percent of workers said that they didn’t think there was an issue with diversity because their company is a meritocracy.

Conventional thought suggests that if a company evaluates people on their skills, abilities, and merit, without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality etc., and hiring managers are objective in their assessments, then there is no need for diversity policies. However, researchers at MIT have debunked the perpetual myth of meritocracy. Their findings reveal that the belief that the tech industry rewards merit above all else actually makes people more likely to be biased in hiring and promoting talent.

Lip Service and Empty Promises

When appearing at North Carolina A&T, a historically Black college (HBCU), Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked how the diversity problem could be remedied. He replied,

“Frankly, I think that’s our problem to figure out. I think that responsibility rests on us and our companies in the industry to make sure that we get to that. And there’s so much research that shows that you need diverse teams to do the best work.

It’s clear that Zuckerberg hasn’t figured it out, as his company is made up of 17 percent women (below the average of the Atlassian report) and 6 percent Black and Latinx (just slightly above the average in the report). Though Facebook has made efforts to diversify its ranks, the disparity is still gaping. Zuckerberg seems to fall in line with the 60 percent of tech employees who said their company was trying to ramp up diversity but couldn’t highlight any concrete action. Though he may personally be sincere, his words come off as nothing more than lip service to appease critics.

Former start-up darling Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick have had to deal with a number of salacious accusations from former and current employees that described a toxic work environment for women. At a recent, all-hands-on-deck meeting, board member Arianna Huffington declared,

“Going forward there can be no room at Uber for brilliant jerks and zero tolerance for anything but totally respectable behavior in an equitable workplace environment.”

As a result, Uber has stepped up recruiting in an effort to build out its ‘diversity and inclusion’ team and implemented training programs to educate and empower employees, which include: Why Diversity Matters; How to be an Ally; and Building Inclusive Teams. For the startup valued at $70B, built on a culture of defiance and disruption, the question remains however, is it too little too late?

We know there is a problem... How do we fix it?

Frank Dobbin, a sociology professor at Harvard, suggests that the best way for hiring managers to buy into inclusion efforts is through college recruitment programs targeted to women and minorities. Recently, Google took a major step in this direction when it announced the opening of Howard West, a new campus for Howard University (a historic HBCU) at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley. Howard West will launch this summer and 25–30 of Howard’s rising junior and senior computer science majors will qualify for the first 12-week program, proctored by Google engineers and Howard faculty.

Google’s opening of Howard West has been lauded as “revolutionary,” by some in the tech community, and while I think it is a step in the right direction it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Currently, only 31 percent of black engineering majors earn their degrees within a six-year period, compared with 64 percent of whites, 52 percent of Latinx and 73 percent of Asians. Though many factors contribute to this, debt, lack of mentorship and support are some of the main culprits. I had the pleasure of speaking with some of these future engineers at the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) convention where 10,000 aspiring and practicing engineers convened to meet with 200 or so tech heavy hitters, universities, and government agencies. While many are excited about their future careers, they are also aware of the challenges they will face. “The lack of women and people of color in the tech industry definitely has a negative affect on my outlook, but it also encourages me to support the environments that promote diversity, and create new ones” said Tracy Francis, a junior IT and Entrepreneurship major at The Illinois Institute of Technology.

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NSBE has an ambitious goal of graduating 10,000 black engineering majors a year by 2025. When discussing how it will triple the current number of grads to achieve that goal Karl Reid, NSBE Executive Director said,

“To get to our 2025 goal, we must continue to challenge prevailing norms and remove barriers to ensure all groups can equally participate in and contribute to the burgeoning fields of engineering,”

This writer agrees; The pervading culture must evolve from the top down. If you think the employee data is ugly, you would be utterly disgusted by the reported numbers on executive level roles. To date, less than 1 percent of venture-capital-backed start-ups are led by African Americans and companies with female CEOs only receive a paltry 2.7 percent of venture funding a year.

Perched high in the ivory tower of disruption, the tech industry is increasingly losing touch with reality. If the industry is to live up to its lofty ideals and improve the lives of the greater public, the executives, the employees, and the stakeholders have to come to terms with their self-deceptive identity crisis. Only then can measurable progress be made.

About The Author

 Roger is the founder and Managing Partner at PCM. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife and 2-year-old son.

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