Analysis: Boards reflect male-dominated tech world
By Jon Swartz, USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO – We know big-name tech CEOs want no part of the diversity debate.
But at least we know who they are.
Largely anonymous boards of directors for the tech industry are conspicuously silent and — for decades — have been the province of white, older men. They are equally to blame for hiring trends that skew toward younger, white males, as illustrated in diversity reports recently released by Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Tech boards “are an isolated place, an echo chamber,” says Lucy Marcus, an expert on boards who sits on the board of directors of Atlantia, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure company in Italy.
“It’s a selective circle of the most successful people — and they tend to be older and white,” adds Jenna Bilotta, a former Google designer who is co-founder of Avocado Software. “They feel most comfortable with their own.”
Progress on boards for women has been glacial, and nearly non-existent for African-Americans and Hispanics. White men held about 75% of the board seats on the 500 largest publicly traded companies, vs. 5.5% for male African-Americans in 2012, the most recent year in which data was available, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity.
A Bloomberg story Tuesday offered more depressing news: It said 82% of S&P 500 board members are male.
Little surprise, then, that the hiring patterns of tech firms often reflect the composition of their boards — except for older age.
So far, the woeful figures have been accompanied by official comments from human resources representatives — and conspicuous silence from CEOs, save for Apple CEO Tim Cook. As the de facto leaders of what amount to small countries, as measured by revenue, you would expect the chief executive to weigh in on such a weighty topic.
You might also reasonably expect the CEO’s trusted advisers — the board of directors — to take some form of responsibility or action. Corporate governance requires an independent board that asks hard questions about all aspects of the company’s operations, including diversity throughout its workforce and board.
Don’t hold your breath.
The composition of tech boards — where a minuscule number of women, Hispanics and blacks serve — is even worse than the paltry number of Hispanics and blacks who work at tech companies. “Tech companies consider themselves so cutting edge and yet they are so out of touch with their boards,” Marcus says.
“It truly is shocking,” says John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Investments, a money-management and mutual fund company. He’s a trustee for the University of Chicago and sits on the boards of McDonald’s and energy producer Exelon. “Apple’s board has Al Gore. You would think they would discuss inclusion. I think there is slow movement.”
It’s no better with angel investors, 19% of whom are women and only 4% are minorities, according to the Center for Venture Research.
Facebook’s then-seven-member board was all male until it named Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in June 2012, after it went public. “Sheryl is a corporate officer of the company,” Marcus says, sighing.
Twitter, too, bent to criticism when it tapped Marjorie Scardino to its eight-member board after its IPO late last year.
There are encouraging signs, though not nearly enough. Notable exceptions include John Thompson (Microsoft) and Colin Powell (Salesforce.com). Thompson, who is vacationing in Europe, had no comment.
Apple added Susan Wagner to its board in July amid a vow by Cook to diversify it.
Three of Google’s 11 board members are women.
And, last week, Care.com named former Time CEO Laura Lang the second female to its six-person board. “I joined because it is an inclusive board,” Lang says. “Diversity of people and thought is a business imperative.”
The usually loquacious Jesse Jackson, who has pressed Silicon Valley to share its diversity numbers, is at a loss to explain why such an open-minded, socially-conscious industry is so exclusionary.
“It’s amazing,” Jackson said in a recent phone interview. “There are plenty of qualified African-Americans, but not much change.”
Whether naive, arrogant or insulated, tech companies are unconsciously biased and that could undercut potential business.
Corporate boards are supposed to provide oversight. Instead, they are part of the problem. Until they wake up and make diversity a priority because of the business imperative, the issue will likely languish. “Board directors need to be held to account,” Marcus says.
Tech companies revel in their use of the word “disruption. How about disrupting your hiring patterns?