Diversity in tech: Going beyond lip service

Tech companies say they want more women and minorities. But who's actually doing something tangible?

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
6 min read

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, left, and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at a January event in New York on diversity in business, hosted by Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

This story is part of Solving for XX, a CNET special report exploring what people and companies are doing to make the tech industry more diverse, more equitable and more welcoming to women.

It's the little things that can speak volumes.

Take the "How innovation happens" panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, in March. White House technology chief Megan Smith, Steve Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt were on stage discussing ways to spur new thinking in the technology industry, in part by attracting more women and people of color.

But the audience noticed more than just what was being said. They also picked up on how the two men kept interrupting Smith, a former top Google executive who was tapped by President Obama last year to be the country's chief technology officer.

"Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men, I'm wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times," an audience member asked during the Q&A. The questioner was Judith Williams, head of Google's global diversity and talent management program.


It was a small, but telling, example of how hard it can be to change mindsets and behavior, even when people want to.

That exchange comes amid a larger debate in the tech industry after some of the largest tech companies -- from Apple to Facebook and Microsoft to Twitter -- released reports last year that show about 70 percent of their employees worldwide are men, and almost 65 percent of their US workforce is white.

A few companies are stepping up and doing more than just saying they recognize that diversity is a problem and that they care about a more balanced workforce.

Perhaps the most promising effort comes from Intel. In January, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich -- a father of two daughters interested in technology -- announced a new $300 million campaign to change the chipmaker's diversity mix. As part of that initiative, Krzanich is tying managers' compensation to their ability to hire more women and minorities.

"We took diversity from a project that HR or some other part of the organization owns to saying -- improving our diversity, improving our representation of women and minorities is part of our doing business," Krzanich says. "You set goals, you tell publicly what you're going to do, you invest in that technology or that problem set and you set managers' pay to that performance. That's how you solve problems."

Intel said it's already seeing progress, reporting Wednesday that 41 percent of its hires this year were diverse, up from 32 percent last year. Hiring in senior positions was also up for women and under-represented minorities, such as blacks and Latinos.

Schmidt's gaffe aside, Google also touts its push for a more diverse workplace. The search giant offers generous maternity and paternity leave, has created employee resource groups for women and minorities, and develops workshops to help employees understand unconscious biases that affect how employees perceive and interact with others. Google says more than 20,000 people -- or nearly half its employees -- attended those workshops in 2013.

After Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in October that women shouldn't ask for raises but instead rely on "karma" for career advancement, Microsoft started companywide training on unconscious bias and other diversity issues.

"There are biases about everything," says Julie Larson-Green, chief experience officer of Microsoft's Applications and Services Group and the company's highest-ranking female technical executive. "Are there ways to bring out the best in people? That's been a really great conversation we've had internally."

In March, Apple unveiled a $50 million donation to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) to encourage more women and people of color to study computer science.

And on Wednesday, Google said it will invest $150 million this year to attract more women and minorities into the tech industry, up from $115 million last year. Part of that goes to funding individual initiatives, such as Google in Residence. That program embeds Google engineers as professors, mentors and advisors at historically black colleges including Howard University, Morehouse College and Spelman College, with the goal of encouraging more African American students to consider tech careers.

Yet as promising as these efforts are, there's no quick fix.

"It's a tough challenge, but the tech industry has solved tough challenges before," says Vanessa Hurst, co-founder of the nonprofit Girl Develop It, which teaches women to code. "We are at a turning point in acknowledging the problem and starting to address the solution."

Root cause

The University of Indiana has been doing its part to bring about change since 2008.

That's when its School of Informatics and Computing hired Maureen Biggers for the newly created position of assistant dean of diversity and education. Since then, Biggers -- with the help of NCWIT -- has been working to attract young women to the school's computer science programs.

As part of that effort, the university staff has made classes more collaborative, introduced support programs such as free tutoring and peer learning, and assessed educators' and administrators' progress. In 2013, the school launched the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, which combines research, mentoring and community outreach to convince young women and girls to pursue computing-related careers.

Women now comprise 21 percent of the computer science school's student body, up from 13 percent in the 2007-08 school year. Yet Biggers says progress is "still slow" and the school is far from reaching its goal of male-female parity.

Harvey Mudd College and Carnegie Mellon University are also trying to reform computer science education. Harvey Mudd, for example, revised its introductory computing courses to emphasize programming as an outlet for creative problem-solving -- not just theory or brute-force computation. Carnegie Mellon eliminated programming experience as an admissions requirement and established dedicated mentorship programs for women.

The number of female computer science majors at Harvey Mudd has tripled over the past four years, and women now represent two out five students in the department. At Carnegie Mellon, women now represent more than 40 percent of all incoming freshman to the School of Computer Science.

Still, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Biggers wants to see universities doing more to attract women to computer science -- but knows it can be a tough sell.

"I think some people are going to be deterred because they'll say they don't have time or don't have expertise to do it, but I think other people will be encouraged," says Biggers. "All they need is a map to do it."

Intel will help underwrite that map as part of its $300 million campaign. The world's largest chipmaker will boost its funding of K-12 computing classes in underserved areas and increase its contributions to scholarships that promote gender and ethnic diversity, says Chief Diversity Officer Rosalind Hudnell. (A title, by the way, that's starting to show up with greater frequency in tech companies.) For example, Intel on Wednesday said it will invest $5 million into the Oakland, Calif., school district to support its efforts in computer science and engineering.

Intel will also hire more female interns and change its exit interview process to understand why promising women employees leave.

Increasing retention is especially important, since women in private-sector technical jobs quit at twice the rate as their male counterparts, according NCWIT. That has its own cost: studies show companies spend as much as $200,000 just to replace one employee in a technical role.

"This is the most comprehensive approach that I know of -- from [both] a financial investment end and workforce end," says Hudnell, a 19-year Intel veteran.

A diversity panel discussion Intel hosted at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which included CEO Krzanich, right, diversity chief Hudnell, left, and Soledad O'Brien, center right. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

It takes a village

Despite their best intentions, some tech firms fail to get beyond lip service because they don't know how to start. Hurst, of Girl Develop It, suggested they partner with national organizations rather than creating projects on their own.

"It's important they invest in programs that work, rather than start from scratch on a problem they haven't historically solved well," she says.

For its part NCWIT has been coordinating projects for hundreds of organizations over the past 11 years. The organization is also responsible for its own projects, including Aspirations in Computing , which mentors girls and women from kindergarten to graduate school. And through its Extension Services for Under Graduate Programs, NCWIT helps universities and colleges attract more women to computing.

Things are getting better, says NCWIT's CEO Lucy Sanders.

"Together we are having a far greater impact," she said in an email. "I am optimistic change will happen. It is happening and will only accelerate. But there is certainly more work ahead."

-- CNET's Roger Cheng, Nick Statt and Donna Tam contributed to this report.