Diversity champion says Silicon Valley overlooks minority talent
Four white guys and an Indian. A male Indian. That’s the central cast of the new HBO hit sitcom “Silicon Valley.” The race and gender breakdown only slightly exaggerates the makeup of Silicon Valley’s actual workforce.
Google Inc. recently released figures that show just how homogenous its 46,000-plus employee base is: 70% men, 30% women, 61% white, 30% Asian, 3% Latino and 2% black. Google said, “That’s miles away from where we want to be,” and announced that it would work hard for more diversity.
Google’s announcement prompted immediate protest. “All positions should be given on merit alone, the best qualified candidate gets the job” was among the milder comments posted on news sites.
Freada Kapor Klein is having none of it.
“Silicon Valley’s obsession with meritocracy is delusional and aspirational and not a statement of how it really operates,” she said. “Unless someone wants to posit that intelligence is not evenly distributed across genders and race, there has to be some systematic explanation for what these numbers look like.”
Klein is co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which seeks to diversify participation in the technology economy, focusing on “underrepresented communities.” The other co-chair is her husband, Mitch Kapor, who designed Lotus 1-2-3, the software application that sparked business adoption of personal computers in the 1980s.
Google announced that it would partner with the Kapor Center to help diversify its own workforce and work with other Silicon Valley companies to do the same. Google plans a “big tent” event later in the year to bring in valley luminaries to address the issue.
Klein agrees that hard work, strong computer skills and a willingness and ability to learn are essential for a successful career in technology. That’s why, she said, the Kapor Center is working to improve the pipeline of talent with programs such as its SMASH Academy, which brings mostly poor black and Latino high school students to summer programs at UCLA, USC, Stanford and UC Berkeley to study science, technology, engineering and math.
But, Klein maintains, tech companies often overlook minority talent through unconscious or hidden bias. Studies have shown that even managers who don’t believe that they are biased tend to hire people very much like themselves. She calls this a “leaking pipeline” of talent that Google, for one, has begun to address through management courses in hidden bias.
Google is also moving away from its laser focus on grade point averages and SAT scores because they’ve proved to be “not good predictors” of employee success if not considered alongside traits like personal resilience and approaches to problem solving, Klein said.
A kid who “took all [advanced placement] classes in high school, which was three, because you go to an inner-city failure factory where half the kids dropped out” may show more pluck and commitment than a kid who “went to an independent school and took three AP classes out of 80, Klein said.
Google posted on its blog Wednesday that the company has “always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong.” Asked for comment Friday, Google released a statement reiterating what it said on its blog.
In 2010, Google, along with Apple Inc., Yahoo Inc., Oracle Corp. and Applied Materials Inc., was allowed by federal regulators to keep its diversity breakdown secret after a Freedom of Information request from the San Jose Mercury News.
Apple declined to comment Friday about whether it plans to follow Google’s lead and release its diversity numbers. A Yahoo spokesperson said, “At this time, we do not break out statistics on race or gender for our workforce.” Oracle and Applied Materials did not respond to questions.
During the 2010 controversy, Intel Corp. spokesman Chuck Mulloy publicized the company’s figures -- and Intel continues to post workforce statistics on its website. “There’s nothing to hide, in our view,” he said at the time. “We’re very proud of the diversity programs we have in place.”