Silicon Valley's diversity efforts get mired in scandal

In 2017, the technology industry faced a humiliating reality that took the shine off efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive future.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
5 min read

Tech is still struggling with diversity. 

Bernard Weil/Getty

In your average year, the numbers are enough to deal with.

Since 2014, major tech companies have released diversity reports showing the industry's demographic lopsidedness in favor of white men. The percentages of women and minorities in tech are low, and the percentages in technical roles are even lower, often failing to crack 30 percent.

But colorful pie charts with sad numbers aren't where it stops. We're coming to the end of a bruising year in which scandal after scandal seemed to fly in the face of glossy efforts to create a diverse and inclusive future for the tech industry.

"If you build a brand on culture and it's revealed that your culture is toxic, you really do stand to take a hit," said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of diversity-focused consulting firm ReadySet.

And so 2017 is leaving behind a pretty crummy aftertaste.

In February, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a post about her experience working at Uber, which included getting propositioned by a manager.

A few months later, venture capitalists including Chris Sacca and Dave McClure were outed as sexual harassers -- and even admitted to using their positions to take advantage of women founders. In a Medium post, McClure called himself a creep.

Fast-forward to August, when a Google employee wrote a 10-page memo criticizing diversity efforts in tech, going as far as to say that low numbers of women in tech aren't the result of rampant sexism, but biology.

Last month, tech blogger and evangelist Robert Scoble responded to sexual harassment allegations with a lengthy blog post disputing the idea that sexual harassment can take place without a power imbalance.

Watch this: Google memo highlights need for more diversity talk

Tech making an effort

None of this is a good look for a powerful industry that's supposed to unlock humanity's future. And if anything, it's a frustrating experience running counter to what seems like significant efforts to change.

In 2015, Intel pledged $300 million to launch a broad scope of partnerships and programs to improve diversity. CEO Brian Krzanich even tied executive compensation to hitting diversity goals. That year, too, Facebook introduced the Diverse Slate Approach, which "sets the expectation that hiring managers will consider candidates from underrepresented backgrounds when interviewing for an open position." In June 2016, Google gave tech education nonprofits a $2.8 million space in its New York City office. Twitter works with the group Girls Who Code.

Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft all have employee resource groups spanning race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual or gender orientation, veteran status and age. Google has a coaching program just for black and Hispanic Googlers. Many of those same companies offer training on unconscious bias to make employees and managers aware of the ways they might be dismissing, discounting or discriminating against others who might not look like they do, even without meaning to.

We've seen other companies like Netflix, Twitter and Facebook extend their parental leave policies. IBM will pay for new mothers to ship their breast milk home if they have to travel. Accenture says you don't have to travel at all for a year, if you've got a recent arrival, whether biological or adopted.

And in 2016, the release of diversity reports came side by side with news that many of those big tech companies, including Facebook and Apple, had reached pay equity in the US. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has regularly talked about putting $3 million toward closing the gender pay gap after women at the company said they weren't getting paid the same as men.

A broader shift

So what's happening?

"2017 was about peeling back the veil on a lot of really complicated and difficult issues, not just in tech but in society at large," Hutchinson said.

She thinks we're at a crossroads this year -- we either acknowledge that prejudice never stopped being prevalent or brush it all back under the rug.

We're certainly seeing signs of the former, especially outside tech. Hollywood figures like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein have been publicly accused of sexual harassment and assault -- Spacey lost his Netflix show "House of Cards," and Weinstein's been booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There's a Google Doc referred to as the "shitty men in media" list circulating, a crowdsourced repository of who to watch out for. And sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill have led to the departure of at least one representative

Tech is just part of what's going on.

Catherine Ashcraft, director of research at the National Center for Women in Information and Technology (NCWIT), an organization that works with companies on strategic ways to address diversity, said it's impossible to control everyone inside a company, obviously. One toxic person doesn't have to represent the entire company, but how management deals with such things is vital.

"How you respond to it is key -- making clear that this is not tolerated and that there [are] severe consequences," she said.

Still, the tension between the things companies would rather, or rather not, tout in press releases will likely keep us twisting for a while.

Thinking ahead

Even some of the most ardent supporters of opening tech up for all have their moments of doubt.

Ruthe Farmer, chief evangelist for educational organization CSforAll Consortium, sometimes wonders if it's ethical to send young women and minorities into a field where they might not be treated equally.

She thinks that ultimately the pipeline will grow and they'll decide if they want to work in tech or a different industry in a tech role -- maybe one not so imbalanced.

"Young girls and students of color," she said, "...can vote with their feet."

Tech should be concerned.

Tech Turkeys 2017: The lowest points in tech this year

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Study after study has shown that more diverse teams are more creative and innovative. Companies with diverse leadership are more profitable. And if you want to make products people will use, make sure the people making them represent the ones who would use them.

Tech needs all the minds and bodies it can get. The Obama administration estimated that there were upward of a half million open jobs in information and technology. These are some of the highest-paying jobs in the country right now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's a relationship of mutual benefit that could be a lot healthier than it is.

But oh, all those scandals.

"We need them in the field and we want all students to be able to chose whatever pathway they feel is one they want for themselves, and they should be treated fairly and equally in those environments," Farmer said, "but we know that's not yet true."

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