Why are ‘innovative’ tech companies still struggling with diversity?

Date: 11-04-2016
Source: The Guardian

Technology might like to think of itself as the antithesis of the stuffy east coast old boys’ network, but really it’s just a reimagined, west coast version of it

Will the industry follow up on public actions with a prolonged commitment to redressing the bias that exists?

The more diverse we are, the better we are at making smarter decisions. So why, oh why, is what should be our most innovative industry – technology – also our most homogeneous?

For decades, the research has been demonstrating the advantages of diversity. It isn’t just that people from a variety of backgrounds bring different kinds of information and ways of thinking to the table, it’s the fact that when we have to deal with people who aren’t just like us, we ourselves do better: we do our homework more rigorously, we bolster our arguments more thoughtfully, we may prepare ourselves for a more lengthy process of reaching a conclusion.

You’d have thought the tech set, of all people, would have seen the data. But even when technology companies do recruit members of minority groups, they find themselves still at a disadvantage.

An analysis by New York’s Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, based on data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found that the average annual income for workers in the technology industry in the city was $107,661 – a great salary, even in New York. You fared even better if you were white, though, earning an average of $116, 200, while Latinos pocketed an average of $69,400 and black people earned only about half the average of their white counterparts, or $58,600.

That inequality held true throughout the various categories of the various sub-sectors. The best-paying field within technology was software publishing, where a Caucasian could earn an average of $171,400 but a black employee could expect average earnings of only $85,000. Even in computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing, an area that had the largest percentage of people of color – and also the lowest average wages – that pattern remained intact. Non-white workers made up 31% of the workforce but still earned only about half of the annual average salary of $44,200 for the sub-sector.

As the report points out, this means that the benefits of New York’s high-tech boom are flowing, disproportionately, to its whitest citizens.

Technology’s gender problem has long attracted attention and is getting more scrutiny, with activist investor Arjuna Capital demanding that companies such as Amazon and Microsoft (whose CEO, Satya Nadella, earned renown for suggesting that women not demand raises but simply wait for karma to deliver them) disclose data on how differently men and women are paid for doing similar jobs.

But the diversity problem is just as deeply rooted, and there is little to no momentum. Indeed, if some of the news from Twitter is anything to go by, it’s all going in reverse.

As of last summer, only 49 of Twitter’s 2,910 employees were black, or 1.7%; 3% were black or Latino. That’s a big issue for a company that is heavily issued by the black population of the US, and drew fire from the Rev Jesse Jackson, among others. By the end of 2015, when the company recruited a high-profile head of diversity from Apple, the firm hadn’t yet followed through on promises to visit historically black colleges on recruiting trips. That new head of diversity? A white man. (True, Jeffrey Siminoff is gay.) Siminoff arrived in the nick of time, just as the only senior black engineer at Twitter, Leslie Miley, lost his job as part of a large round of layoffs.

Miley’s public and candid comments about what it’s like to be black and work at a senior level inside a Silicon Valley firm are both painful and crucial reading. He laid out, calmly and dispassionately, how diverse candidates were “dinged” for not having internships at “strong” companies or “not being fast enough to solve problems”. Miley recounts that it took hours of lobbying to convince higher-ups to take a chance on hiring these individuals. “Needless to say, the majority of them performed well.”

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The final blow, he says, was a proposal by the senior vice-president of engineering to design a tool to screen for black candidates using surnames. Bemused, Miley pointed out that this would hardly have identified himself as black and that the idea ignored “the complex forces of history, colonization, slavery and identity”. How, he wondered, could he remain at Twitter, where a senior executive saw himself as a technology visionary and yet remained unaware of “this blind spot in his understanding of diversity”?

The story ends well for Miley. His post went viral, earning him a public apology from Twitter and invitations to consult or discuss these issues with most of the top names in Silicon Valley, from Google and Facebook to Intel and Pinterest. He now works as the director of engineering for a recruiting software startup, Entelo.

But will the industry follow up those public actions with a prolonged commitment to redressing the bias that exists, both in the number of minorities who work within its ranks and in the pay gap that also appears to exist?

Part of the problem is a lack of ability or willingness to step beyond known and familiar patterns when hiring.

Technology might like to think of itself as the antithesis of the stuffy east coast old boys’ network, but really it’s just a reimagined version of it: call it the freewheeling nerdy west coast new boys’ network. When the geeks running a fast-growing startup suddenly realize that they need to hire five more people now, they don’t reach back to the alumni networks of Exeter Andover, the lacrosse or squash clubs that they belonged to growing up, or their Yale or Princeton societies or eating clubs – they talk to their venture capital backers, or turn to Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Stanford.

Meanwhile, a sizable proportion of black computer science or engineering graduates attended historically black colleges such as Howard University or Tuskegee University, where recruiters from Silicon Valley firms have only just begun to show up. Then, too, if candidates see the experience of senior figures like Miley, they may decide that this kind of career path just isn’t an appealing one to pursue.

Or they may simply never have that opportunity, because they don’t see those role models at all, because almost of the most visible role models are white. We’ve broken through the gender barrier in technology, with women like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Carly Fiorina becoming national figures. We’ve had black Americans head major corporations, from McDonald’s and American Express, to Xerox and Merck. But there isn’t a comparably high-profile black figure within the tech universe. Somehow, Dan Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, just doesn’t cut it, when put beside the innovative founders of the company, or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs.

It’s time for Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley to take a hard look to take at the most recent batch of pay gap figures, and the long-standing data on minority under-representation, and stop fussing and fretting and debating about this topic and just do something about it. For an industry that proclaims it’s innovative, this should be embarrassing.

Especially when these “innovative” companies are ceding the leadership to grassroots nonprofit programs in their own back yard, dedicated to ensuring that a new generation of candidates will be ready and waiting, CVs in hand, to apply for jobs at Twitter, Facebook and Intel in a few years’ time. I only hope that those businesses will be prepared to accept them and pay them equitably.

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