The biggest challenge to diversifying tech talent

As the effort ages amid slow but steady progress, it needs to find ways to keep its momentum.

Diversity in tech will be a long-term issue.

Photo by The Washington Post/Getty Images

In five years, what will the push for diversity in tech look like?

Though the conversation seems louder than ever before, this issue is one the industry will be confronting for some time to come. The challenge is how to achieve meaningful progress and keep people caring after years of incremental change.

"People shouldn't have the expectation that next year it's going to be parity," said Elizabeth Ames, vice president of strategic marketing and alliances for the Anita Borg Institute, an organization focused on the advancement of women in technology.

Over the last few years, the subject of diversity in tech has gotten a good deal of attention -- and not always in the rosiest light. Sometimes, it's been a high-profile conflict, as when former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao lost her sexual discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins in March 2015. Other times, it's been jokes about the difference between the lines for the men's and women's restrooms at tech events. Then there was the Department of Labor's lawsuit against Palantir in September for discriminating against Asian job applicants.

There are myriad reasons why it all matters, but one of the most striking is economic opportunity.

The White House regularly hammers the point that there are a half million open jobs in IT, an industry that generally pays well. A recent report from consulting firm Accenture projected that if more serious measures aren't taken, women alone will be missing out on possibly $299 billion by 2025. In 2014, the American Institute for Economic Research found that when it comes to skilled jobs in tech, Asian, black and Hispanic workers make less than their white counterparts.

High stakes, low action. But doom and gloom can be dangerous.

How to read diversity reports

One step Silicon Valley has taken is to start releasing diversity reports. In 2013, then-Pinterest coder Tracy Chou challenged tech companies to start reporting their demographics.

While diversity reports are often released in the name of transparency, that doesn't mean they're easy reads, especially when the most obvious takeaway is something like 1 percentage point of change from year to year.

There are a few key metrics Ames looks for as signals of progress. The first is the breakdown for new hires. That's where companies making good efforts in the recruitment and hiring process display change.

The second metric is retention.

"The concern becomes if you're just hiring them in and the environment is so negative that they then just turn around and leave, you really haven't made any gains," Ames said.

Finally, there's the percentage of women and minorities in leadership positions. Are they moving up? Beyond the basic idea of whether they're being given the chance for advancement, women and minorities in leadership positions tend to attract others. They're a sign that it's possible to get ahead at a given company, Ames said.

What does 1 percent mean?

The change isn't much to look at.

"Whenever I look at these numbers that go up from 16 percent to 17 percent, or 13 percent to 14 percent, what that tells me is they're not really serious," said Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe.

One percent change can look like no change at all. And it's often accompanied by head-hanging from companies as they acknowledge there's still work to do.

The repetition can be demoralizing.

"Especially for those who are advocates for diversity and care deeply about it, the feeling is that tech companies and leaders simply don't care about solving the problem," Chou said.

But there are times when 1 percent is a big difference. For a company like Intel, it represents about 1,000 people.

"We've increased the representation of women in our workforce by 2 percent in a year," Intel Chief Diversity Officer Danielle Brown said. "But 2 percent is really significant when you've got a huge installed base workforce and you're not not a startup doubling in size every year."

Beating the perception game

Either way, it's not an inspiring rally cry.

"What I worry about is people are going to lose interest because the narrative is going to be that it's just too hard or that nobody's making progress," Brown said.

Will there come a point when tech company leaders throw up their hands and say women and minorities must not want to work in tech?

"That's always the danger because that could be an excuse," said Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist with the National Center for Women and Information Technology. The key to beating this, she said, is strategic planning.

That means having funding, support from the top levels of the company and the ability to measure progress toward goals and adjust as necessary.

For instance, Intel started tracking its diversity numbers a decade ago. But Brown said nothing changed until the company set a goal and CEO Brian Krzanich pledged $300 million to the cause, regularly looked at the reports and supported the effort.

Upon realizing that its percentage of women fell a full percentage point and that increases among minorities were slim, Microsoft announced in November that it will tie its diversity goals to executives' compensation.

During Klawe's 10 years at Harvey Mudd, the school has raised the number of women and minorities in computer science. Harvey Mudd is about half women, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black. This year's computer science graduating class was more than 50 percent women.

In education, people like Klawe and Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant are trying to equip students with both the skills and the confidence to survive in companies that are works in progress.

"It's about how do we build even more complex solutions that really get to the root cause of so many of these issues," Bryant said.

The long play

Change isn't just about getting people in. It's also about keeping them.

"You're going to have a very expensive zero-sum game if people are leaving out the backdoor," Brown said.

Retention is tricky because it's so tied into culture -- it's not just whether the pay is equal, but whether the environment is conducive to career growth and how far a company will go to help employees stay.

Ellyn Shook, Accenture's chief leadership and human resources officer, gave an example of an initiative that started as a request from a new mom and increased the retention of new parents by 30 percent. As many Accenture employees travel for work, the woman asked about the company paying to ship breast milk home. Shook initially agreed.

But was pump, dump and ship really the best way to help a mom with a baby?

"I didn't feel good about enabling what she asked for, but not really getting to the root cause," Shook said.

Instead, Accenture instituted a policy where all new parents, including in cases of adoption, don't have to travel for a year -- no strings or stigma attached.

Part of what this speaks to is focusing on the right initiatives. The Harvard Business Review ran a story recently about why mandatory diversity training often doesn't work. A measure designed to stave off lawsuits won't create a healthier working environment.

Along those lines, when figuring out how to get minorities into leadership positions, it's not about sticking them in a leadership class.

"We don't need to fix [them]. They're fine," Ames said, "We need to be looking at the systems and the processes that often embody a certain amount of bias."

Solving for XX

Say "women in tech" and the phrase automatically conveys the sense of too few women, making less money and wielding less overall say and sway in shaping the industry. While that's true, gender disparity isn't a numbers story. Instead, it's about what women and men, companies and universities are doing in 2015 to solve outdated group think.

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