Tech execs acknowledge diversity gap. So, what’s next?
By Jon Swartz, Jessica Guynn and Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — For years, technology companies did worse than simply shrug off the issue of diversity in their workforce.
Some sued to keep that information private from inquiring media outlets and social activists, arguing that divulging such data compromised their competitive advantage.
Given that decades-long mind-set, the USA TODAY/Stanford Diversity in Tech summit meeting Thursday night between Rev. Jesse Jackson, executives from Google and Facebook was nothing less than a breakthrough on an issue that has vexed the nation since slavery was abolished: minority access to employment and capital.
“Bringing people together to talk about these issues is historic,” said Carol Lynn McKibben, a Stanford lecturer who is writing a biography of Jackson. “These things are usually discussed behind closed doors. This was a really important moment to talk about these things in a public forum.”
She said she was impressed that the audience included “Stanford students who will be applying for jobs with these companies, (as well as) people who have themselves experienced discrimination or who as minorities have worked in these white-majority companies. I hope it is not the end but the beginning of the discussion.”
Some of the biggest players in Silicon Valley readily acknowledged the diversity gap in the nearly two-hour panel, punctuating a months-long push by Jackson to bolster low single-digit representation of blacks and Hispanics at tech companies.
Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH coalition have been raising awareness of the divide in Silicon Valley, where the percentage of employees who are black or Hispanic are in the single digits compared with 12% and 16% of the U.S. workforce, respectively.
For decades, the issue has been a non-starter in the predominantly white-male tech industry that either overlooked or ignored it.
But as the composition of their customers becomes more diverse, those companies have no choice but to hire people who reflect their customer base and to build more inclusive workplaces.
“We don’t have a choice at Facebook. It’s not like we are creating something for use in a local market. It is a truly global market. More than 80% of Facebook users do not live in North America. We can’t afford to exclude anyone,” Williams said. “It is a question of survival.”
Tristan Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, has a Palo Alto start-up — Walker & Co. — which he has deliberately staffed with almost exclusively women and minorities.
He says tech companies are waking up to the growing consumer power of blacks and Hispanics in this country and to the realities of operating in a global marketplace. Studies show that companies with gender and ethnic diversity are more creative and more profitable, he points out.
“As long as they are talking about it but not acting on it, I have a comparative advantage,” Walker said.
Jackson urged representatives from Facebook and Google to increase their minority outreach programs and provide measurable results. Those executives in turn responded that they were keen to have their staffs better reflect the national demographic, but that short-term solutions weren’t likely.
Overt bigotry doesn’t play a major role in this issue, which in fact makes it a more difficult problem to root out, said panelist Richard Thompson Ford, Stanford law professor and author of The Race Card.
“Bias (in tech) is more readily concealed,” he said. “Most of the problems will be resolved by trying to engage hiring managers to see diversity as a positive goal that they are on board with. In many ways, that’s a harder problem to solve than unrepentant bigots.”
Ford said universities need to pay more attention to not only who they’re recruiting for engineering degrees but also the environment in which they are sending those minority recruits.
“Will you find racists in the computer science department? No, but you may find people with preconceived ideas of who will be good or not. There’s a culture that exists in those departments, one of who helps who. And maybe you then go, I could do something else, I’ve got options,” he said.
DIVERSITY ROAD MAP
So what exactly is the road map for diversifying Silicon Valley’s largely white male profile?
Education is a major building component, beginning with science and technology courses in elementary school that widen the pool, the panel agreed.
Nancy Lee, Google’s director of diversity and inclusion, said the search-engine giant will cast a wider net by recruiting from non-elite schools and placing a Googler in Residence at traditionally black colleges with a mission to bring computer-science programs up to Google’s hiring standards.
“We may not have seen tech’s best days because we haven’t seen all its best players,” Jackson said, drawing an analogy to the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, which presaged a golden era of breathtaking talent in the sport.
Yet some of the approximately 200 people in attendance want more than talk. They want results.
“It’s good to have conversations. But this topic has been talked to death, and nothing gets done,” said Anthony Kinslow II, 24, a graduate student in Stanford’s civil engineering program. “When I was an undergrad (at North Carolina A&T State University, the historically black college that Jackson attended), no tech recruiters visited. None.”
“Diversity goes hand-in-hand with innovation and ideas,” Kinslow said, pointing out that just 1% of Stanford’s graduate school of engineering students are black. “Wouldn’t it make more sense for tech companies to be more diverse?”
The panel was “clearly a first step” in tackling a longtime problem, says Anita Gardyne, CEO of SafetySitters, a start-up that offers in-house care and babysitting services through a mobile app and website. Gardyne, who is black, said Jackson’s persistence has forced tech companies to disclose their hiring numbers and address the problem.
“I just want an opportunity to compete,” said Gardyne, 52, who says it is daunting to pitch her company to prospective investors.
“Do I see something changing? Yes, I do,” Gardyne said. “Rev. Jackson has lifted the discussion. These are the first steps in a long journey.”