Diversity Reports Only Mask Silicon Valley's Employment Problem

NEWS ANALYSIS: Silicon Valley companies now routinely publish employment diversity reports, but will they do more harm than good?

Diversity Reports

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem.

The problem is that women and minorities are underrepresented and not by a little—by a lot—especially in technology and leadership roles.

A casual glance at the data might lead someone to conclude that women and minorities just aren't interested in tech and therefore don't seek employment in that sector of the economy.

But that view is false, mainly because women and minorities are underrepresented in non-tech roles as well when compared with other industries, which strongly suggests an industry-wide corporate cultural bias.

It's also easy to demonstrate a clear bias in popular culture that mirrors the lack of diversity in the industry itself.

For women, the problem began in the early 80s when about 37 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women. It's declined ever since and now is below 18 percent.

Tech entered the mainstream popular culture in the 70s and 80s. Hollywood started churning out geek movies, where the hacker kid was a boy and the female lead was his girlfriend, a bystander.

Tech-related toys were massively marketed to boys, not girls. And computer ads were strongly targeted at men. When the woman was depicted as a user, it was a housewife making a shopping list—or she was in the scene as eye candy for the lads, like at a car show.

The problem is self-reinforcing. As the culture tells everyone that engineers and computer geeks are white or Asian and male, the environment gets weirder in terms of the low numbers of women and minorities who are in technology. Women programmers are often asked at industry conferences, "So, are you here with your boyfriend"?

And Then Came the Diversity Reports

Just two or three years ago, Silicon Valley companies were pressured to release diversity reports. With so much to hide, they refused. But recently, one by one, they began releasing them. And the results weren't pretty.

The purpose of diversity reports is to bring sunlight to a dark aspect of the tech industry. More to the point, it's supposed to shame companies into taking action. The question is, what action? We'll get to that problem in a minute.

Diversity is good. In fact, workplace diversity is necessary for any industry to be competitive internationally. That's why the conversation around diversity needs to stop being so delusional and air-headed.

And I'm not even talking about the disturbingly problematic categories. Every human at these companies is shoehorned into the following categories: "White," "Black," "Asian" "Hispanic" and "Biracial" or "two or more races." These bad categories raise a hundred questions, including Where do Native Americans go? Or what category does a white person who speaks Spanish fit into? Are people of Afghan origin "White" or "Asian"? And many others.

Of course, most of these reports have an "other" category for people for whom diversity quotas and programs are not applied, which is to say that nobody is pushing Facebook to increase the number of "other" employees.