Intel's diversity goals face many challenges

The chip giant is putting money and accountability behind its diversity push, but it still faces an uphill battle in making change, experts say.

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Intel's Krzanich discusses diversity issues during an interview Wednesday at CES. Ben Charlie Rubin/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- Intel CEO Brian Krzanich's bold call this week for greater diversity in the tech world provides one of the biggest opportunities in years to affect a stubbornly unchanged problem in the industry.

But, while many diversity advocates applaud the new initiative, they -- and Krzanich -- readily admit that achieving success will be very difficult.

"It will be hard. I think it's going to be like what we do every two years -- invent Moore's Law," Krzanich said in an interview Wednesday, referring to the company's overarching goal of doubling computer chips' processing power every other year. "We don't know how we're going to do it. We go and put in the engineering effort and do what it takes. We'll do the same thing here."

During his keynote speech at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show here, Krzanich unveiled the company's Diversity in Technology initiative, a push to make the industry more inclusive to women and underrepresented minorities. Backing the effort, Intel plans to invest $300 million to help build up the pipeline of minorities in tech and support more hiring and retention of those groups. Intel also set new hiring and retention goals for itself to make the company more diverse -- and it added teeth to that effort by tying managers' pay this year to their diversity statistics.

The effort comes at a time of heightened attention on diversity in tech, as unflattering and troublesome situations played out through last year. The video gaming community was in turmoil over verbal threats and attacks against women advocates in the industry, as part of a movement called GamerGate. Many of Silicon Valley's biggest tech companies -- from Google to Facebook to Microsoft -- released diversity reports that show their workers are by majority white and Asian male, particularly in the ranks of executives and engineers.

And Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was criticized after suggesting that women shouldn't ask for raises or promotions.

Intel faced its own criticism. A group of Internet users involved in GamerGate successfully pressured Intel to remove its advertising temporarily from the gaming website Gamasutra after the site ran an article critical of the male-driven gaming community. Krzanich admitted that Intel shouldn't have pulled its ads but added that his company used the situation to come back with a broader answer to the problems of diversity in tech and gaming.

As part of the initiative's first steps, Krzanich said Intel will start putting together the structure for connecting managers' pay to diversity stats, since that part of the program will be implemented for 2015 pay. Additionally, Intel will work on how it does its hiring.

"We're going to make sure there are more women and diverse people out there making the decisions," he said. "Not only interviewing and being in the interviews, but truly making the decisions of who gets hired."

Krzanich said he doesn't have the answers on how to reach the company's diversity goals. So Intel will attack the problem the same way it does engineering projects -- by setting timelines, establishing accountability and marshaling its resources.

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Intel hosted a panel discussion on diversity Wednesday that included Intel Chief Diversity Officer Roz Hudnell, left; Soledad O'Brien, center right; and Krzanich, right. Ben Charlie Rubin/CNET

It will be incredibly hard to change the status quo, train managers to hire people who aren't from similar backgrounds, and ultimately get people to admit the tech industry isn't the meritocracy it should be, said Ginny Clarke, an executive recruiter for talent firm Knightsbridge who works with tech companies on diversity hiring and retention.

"We're really talking about a culture transformation," Clarke said. Change needs to take place at the deep core of a company. "I'm skeptical ... I'm not cynical yet, however, and I want to see it work."

During a panel discussion with Krzanich during CES on Wednesday, Soledad O'Brien, who has covered diversity issues for years as a broadcast journalist, said she believes Intel's effort will have an impact. But she also noted the difficulty in changing the intangible parts of a company culture to make people of various backgrounds feel they belong. Despite those challenges, both O'Brien and Clarke said it was a business imperative to increase diversity to help bring together the best possible talent and have different employees thinking about solving problems in a variety of ways.

Krzanich also has a personal reason for making the initiative a success. "I have two teenage daughters. I want the world to be different for them," he said. "I want them to have an absolute, equal chance."

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