Op-Ed: Silicon Valley’s huge diversity problem holds tech back
The “nerds will rule the world” trope was inspirational for kids like me in the 1980s, a cliche in the 1990s, an ascendant notion in the 2000s, and today it’s canon. Silicon Valley emerged as the nerds’ triumphant new world of possibility where glasses, acne, poor social skills and other comic stereotypes become irrelevant — brilliant ideas win the day on merit alone.
But the reality of this supposedly new social order is largely more of the same. Even with diversity as an established corporate buzzword in 2022, one of the most lucrative industries in the world is still run almost entirely by white men.
Over nearly 20 years working in tech, I haven’t gone a day without being reminded that I’m in the minority as a woman and a Latina. Early in my career, a male co-worker sent me a graphic, sexual message on corporate email. When I reported the incident to the HR and legal departments, he faced no consequences while I got moved to an isolated part of the office, paying the price for speaking up. It became clear my identity would shape my professional life whether I wanted it to or not.
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Undeterred, I stayed and made my mark before moving on to a new startup. I built a network of peers and sought counsel outside of my employers. I often quietly worked with women at competitors to chart a way through Silicon Valley’s Wild West workplaces. I’m fortunate to have found amazing mentors, who also were de facto therapists.
The problem is that I had to piece together this network myself and in my spare time, rather than having diverse mentorship built into the companies where I worked.
This is an industrywide problem: Among Silicon Valley’s largest companies, the percentage of Hispanic/Latinx employees working in technology positions is still absurdly low. Apple, the largest tech company, reports that 8% of its U.S. tech workforce identified as Hispanic/Latinx in 2020. At Microsoft, that number is 7%. Google has more detailed data, but it’s depressing: Just 1.8% of its global tech workforce identifies as female and Hispanic/Latinx. In contrast, Hispanic/Latinx people compose 19% of the overall U.S. population and, crucially, 51% of America’s population growth between 2010 and 2020.
Startups are judged in large part on founders’ bona fides with the “big five” — Apple, Microsoft and Google as well as Facebook and Amazon — and their experience with the industry titans can be a key determinant in getting venture capital. Consequently, the lack of representation at the big five drives disparities across the industry.
Many U.S. sectors have had to confront their lack of diversity and inclusion, but it represents a particular disconnect in tech. The industry generally sees itself as supportive of gender and racial equity and politically progressive — more than 75% of the big five employees’ political donations in 2020 went to Democratic candidates, for example. And the ethos behind tech is progress and change, which is particularly incongruous with such disappointing demographics.
A lack of diversity hurts products and services as well as company culture and performance. Diverse companies are better able to adapt and thrive as consumer populations change. Companies close to gender parity for top-ranking positions earn up to 50% higher profits than companies with fewer female executives.
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And homogeneity creates awful, sometimes dangerous results. Take, for example, artificial intelligence using white-centric facial recognition that labels Black people as “primates” in a video recommendation, disproportionately flagging Black users’ tweets for deletion and algorithmic bias that puts minority pedestrians at greater risk from self-driving cars. When I worked at one social networking startup, a user in a Spanish-speaking country was kidnapped based on information from his profile. As the only person in the company who spoke Spanish and understood important cultural norms, I had to become the police liaison and offer security and privacy recommendations. I’m not sure what would have happened to the kidnapped person without me there.
After working at 12 startups, and witnessing a lack of diversity at every one, I founded Girls in Tech with a singular mission: to end the gender gap in tech by institutionalizing the same networking opportunities that helped me. The organization now has 80,000 members across 57 chapters in 42 countries. I work daily with leaders of America’s tech scene. Yet still, I rarely find someone in the room who looks like me.
Tech has to do better by making real changes, specifically at the top. While increased hiring of nonwhite, nonmale lower-level employees is positive, companies shouldn’t point to those stats for good press while hiding the lack of diversity in their boardrooms where big decisions get made. And the project management process that drives tech development must be overhauled to include input from underrepresented groups from early stages to execution, with accountability for business leaders who fail to bring diverse voices into projects.
Simple changes can make a world of difference. Twitter’s work-from-anywhere policies and a “Rooney rule” — taken from the NFL’s (imperfect and now embattled) requirement for teams to interview minority candidates for top positions — helped to increase its Black and Latinx workforce in the U.S., boosting the latter to 8% in 2021 from 5.5% in 2020.
That’s more proof that we don’t have to stick with the status quo in tech. If more boardrooms took notice, brilliant ideas might truly win the day.
Adriana Gascoigne is the founder and chief executive of Girls in Tech.
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