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.
Diversity Reports Only Mask Silicon Valley’s Employment Problem
What I’m talking about is that there are certain effects and risks associated with a fixation on diversity reports that could become the biggest threat to diversity itself.
What the Big Three Are Reporting
The diversity reports revealed that tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google are only 30 percent female across the board. In tech and leadership positions, that percentage plummets into the teens or below. At Twitter, for example, only 10 percent of employees in technical positions are female.
Specific minority categories are radically under-represented. For example, just 3 percent of Facebook tech employees are “Hispanic” and this is in a state where Latinos recently became the majority. “Hispanic” is a linguistic distinction, whereas “Latino” is a geographic one.
Black employees in tech roles at major Silicon Valley companies typically range between 1 percent and 3 percent—clearly underrepresented to a massive degree. One columnist pointed out that all the black employees at Twitter, Facebook and Google could fit on a single airplane.
The other fact that jumps out is that people lumped into the “Asian” category are wildly over-represented in Silicon Valley. More than 40 percent of the tech employees at Facebook are “Asian” in a country where less than 5 percent of Americans identify as “Asian,” according to the 2010 census.
It’s true that the diversity pressure is paying off, and that the big tech companies are launching wide-ranging programs to increase the diversity of the tech-industry “pipeline,” as Intel calls it—that is the people whose educational and work backgrounds will prepare them to work in technology.
But the fixation on diversity reports is potentially troubling, and here’s why.
The Trouble With Diversity Reports
The whole issue of diversity in the tech industry is controversial in the extreme. So I’m going to make the following point as clearly and plainly as I can.
Diversity reports are problematic because they can incentivize companies to fix the numbers instead of the problem.
Let’s start with the elephant in the living room—immigration and H-1B Visas. For the sake of full disclosure, I must acknowledge I’m personally in favor of Fwd.us’s call to increase H-1B visas and opposed to Donald Trump’s plan to reduce the currently allowed 65,000 slots available.
There are four facts about China and India that directly impact Silicon Valley diversity reporting. First, China and India are the two largest countries in the world with a combined population of 2.6 billion people.
Second, they both produce a higher percentage of women engineers and programmers than the United States does.
Third, engineering students in those countries covet U.S. university educations.
And fourth, workers from those countries fit into the “Asian” category in diversity reporting.
These four facts are part of the reason why there are 10 times more “Asian” employees at Silicon Valley firms than either “Hispanic” or “Black” employees. And they’re also the reason why the actual diversity problem for women is far worse than is being reported in the diversity reports.
Diversity Reports Only Mask Silicon Valley’s Employment Problem
The pressure to move the needle on women in tech roles can incentivize tech companies to move that needle by who they hire abroad, by hiring more women engineers from China and India and fewer men from those countries.
But does hiring large numbers of women from China and India and moving them to California help America’s gender gap in tech?
If so, then the gender gap could be closed in a month. All we would need is legislative permission to waive the H-1B visa requirement for women, then brain-drain the world of its best female engineers.
But this doesn’t solve the problem, does it? U.S-born girls and women are still being culturally excluded from full participation in technology and computer science.
Likewise for minorities. If employees hired in, say, Latin American countries or Spain are brought to California to boost the “Hispanic” number, and if black employees are hired from African countries, the Caribbean and elsewhere to boost the “black” number on diversity reports, then how does a global brain-drain from those countries help minorities born, raised and educated in this country?
The same goes for increasing women and minorities in leadership positions. When companies are just trying to boost those numbers on a diversity report, it’s vastly easier to hire managers and leaders from abroad rather than creating an accepting workplace culture and actively cultivating women and minority leaders from within the existing ranks.
In fact, all diversity reporting that makes no distinction between “imported” workers and “domestic” workers incentivizes actions that work against diversity. Worse, they’re taking the pressure off the companies (including Hollywood and others who profit from manufacturing cultural gender and racial stereotypes) to do more of what they should actually be doing, which is to help solve the cultural problem here at home.
So what’s the solution?
As it stands, diversity reports incentivize the solving of the diversity problem through hiring abroad, which fixes the report but not the problem.
First and foremost, the public and the press need to stop taking diversity reports at face value.
Second, we need to stop using diversity reports as the metric by which gains in diversity are measured, at least until they’re fixed. Instead, we should judge companies on the quality and size of the educational programs and other such programs they create and maintain.
Third, we need to fix diversity reporting by having separate reports for employees who immigrated as university students or post-grad in one report, and U.S.-born employees who were trained in the U.S. education system in another report.
Because it’s only that second report that reveals the problem we have with diversity in technology.
The mixing together of foreign-born workers with U.S.-born workers in diversity reports provides a smoke-screen for Silicon Valley to hide the full scope of their diversity problems and incentivizes the exclusion of American women and minorities in favor of simply hiring abroad.