Just how serious is the tech world about diversity?
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
This summer, Silicon Valley companies and the tech world at large have come under fire for their hiring practices with regard to both racial and gender diversity. The issue ignited in May when, under pressure from civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, Google released statistics stating that just 17 percent of its tech staff is female, 1 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic. Meanwhile, 60 percent are white and 34 percent Asian.
In comparison, the entire United States workforce is 47 percent women, 80 percent white and 12 percent black. Those chasms grow when considering the number of women and minorities in leadership positions at Google.
Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations, said in a blog post that released the figures: "Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it's hard to address these kinds of challenges if you're not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts."
These issues, are of course not limited to Google. In the months since Bock's post, tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and HP have all released similar statistics, and most showed similar numbers to those of Google.
In an industry that influences nearly everyone's life, and one that usually sets out to be as egalitarian as possible, why are these numbers occurring? And what can be done about them?
The most direct explanation is a labor shortage and qualifications issue.
Just 18 percent of all college computer science graduates in 2012 were women. A similar low number came from underrepresented minorities, according to National Science Foundation data in 2013. When put in those lenses, the disparities between population and hiring look more defensible, due to the "pipeline" explanation.
"It begins when kids are young and have access to scant engineering and computer science role models, especially those who are female, black or Hispanic," Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post wrote of the pipeline problem and its roots. "Schools are dropping the ball, too. Few teach any tech skills beyond how to consume, rather than create, technology."
But there are conundrums that a solely pipeline-based explanation doesn't account for. While tech has traditionally been a field dominated by white males, approximately a generation ago, in 1985, women earned 37 percent of computer science degrees.
Jon Evans, a columnist for TechCrunch, explained a "trapdoor problem," citing a 2008 Harvard Business Report study finding that a surprising number of women work in science, engineering and technology early in their careers, but that "fully 52 percent of highly qualified females working for SET companies quit their jobs."
What isn't up for as much debate is that tech companies and educators are making efforts to try to broaden their workforces and leadership. Companies such as Texas Instruments and IBM have various initiatives, mentoring programs and executive diversity programs. Recently, Apple promoted two African-American women to vice president positions. At the youth level, there are programs like Girls Who Code.
There are also a couple companies whose numbers stood out among the crowd that released statistics this summer. At eBay, 42 percent of the workforce is female. In its blog post announcing the numbers, eBay attributed this relative success to its internal Women's Initiative Network, which has been around since 2011. Albeit with a much smaller workforce, crowdfunding service Indiegogo announced that its employees are 45 percent female, and that women are 43 percent of the leadership team.
In theory, with a federal cap on H-1B visas that are used to hire qualified tech workers from other countries, there is opportunity for women and underrepresented minorities with STEM qualifications to enter the tech field. The extent to which that opportunity exists is up for some debate.
Yet, if the tech world's biggest names are serious about diversity, results should arrive in the coming years.
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