When it comes to diversity, tech's idealism keeps falling short

There's still a wide gap between talking about change and making it happen.

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
Woman in office, surrounded by men

Diversity in tech hasn't changed much.

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There's a mantra that gets tossed around in the tech industry: We want to change the world.

For true believers, it's the notion that companies can create products that improve the way we live, work and play -- blasting us into a better future.

But despite that idealism, Silicon Valley still faces a lack of diversity. And there's a notable disconnect between solution-oriented talking points and the pace at which companies are actually making workforces more inclusive.

When technology firms started publishing diversity reports, in 2014, the numbers revealed what many suspected: There are a lot of white guys in tech (and a dearth of women and minorities).

Major companies including Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft haven't cracked the 30 percent mark for women in technical positions, even though a report this year from the International Labour Organization says women account for 46.9 percent of the US workforce.

And we're not even sure how many of the women at these tech companies also fall into an underrepresented category in terms of race or ethnicity.

Since the first reports, the number of women and minorities at technology firms has changed little. Sometimes the numbers stay flat: From 2016 to 2017 Apple stayed at 32 percent women. Sometimes they fall backward: In 2016, Microsoft lost a percentage point.

Most people agree there's more work to be done when it comes to disrupting the demographics of the tech industry. There's also concern that this is a problem where tech just isn't applying itself.

"Companies still aren't really making the big leaps," said Alaina Percival, CEO of the organization Women Who Code.

The work so far has taken on a variety of forms. In 2015, Intel put $300 million into diversity efforts, including tying executive compensation to diversity goals. IBM started its Tech Re-Entry program to bring back women who've left the industry. In November, Apple unveiled an entrepreneur camp for women. On Monday, Microsoft pledged $10 million by 2020 to Code.org, a nonprofit focused on computer science education.

Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi said people are looking to tech in regard to the future of employment, and the diversity issue. Assistance like Microsoft's can, he said, "systematically help change the education system to give every student a pathway to opportunity to get the jobs of the future, and also make sure diversity is baked in."

Making mistakes

Scandal can undermine even the best efforts to show that the tech industry is making progress in how it addresses questions of culture and inclusion.

This year we saw some big flaps, from yet another sexual harassment lawsuit against Uber to a New York Times story alleging that Google went ahead and paid $90 million to Android creator Andy Rubin after he left the company, despite sexual harassment allegations.

"We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that," Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a November letter to employees, which outlined actions the company will take toward encouraging a "representative, equitable, and respectful workplace."

Women Who Code's Percival said internal problems don't have to end up in scandal.

"It's not possible not to make mistakes," she said, "Mistakes are based on the individual, and actions around the mistake are based on the company."

In other words, how companies deal with problems is key.  

In September, Rebooting Representation, a report from McKinsey & Co. and Melinda Gates' Pivotal Ventures, found that only about 5 percent of tech's philanthropic and social responsibility efforts go toward women in tech. Even less, 0.1 percent, goes toward women of color.

"Despite many leaders' stated desire to bring more women into the sector," the report said, "most companies do not invest significantly in improving the gender diversity in tech through their philanthropy."

Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president of AnitaB.org, an organization that works for the advancement of women in computing, said this showed a disconnect.

Is diversity that hard?

Making and celebrating incremental progress can be a tricky dance for companies. In October, Intel reached a goal to increase the diversity of its US workforce to match the percentage of women and minorities in the US tech industry. It was a step forward, but Intel is still about on par with other tech companies.

"The fact that we've hit this goal is just the start of another set of goals," Barbara Whye, vice president of human resources and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Intel, told CNET.

Intel aside, Wilkerson said there's a trap built into the idea that making progress is difficult.

"When you talk about how hard something is, you push it off into the future," Wilkerson said. "You give yourself a pass. You say, 'We're doing the best that we can, and you should just pat us on the head for making any progress at all.'"

She wants to see companies setting bigger goals that signal companies are dug in, like shooting for gains of more than a percentage point a year.

We want to change the world

These days, diversity advocates turn to more than ethics to make their case about why inclusion is important.

There's a growing body of research that supports the idea that having diverse teams leads to better problem solving, innovation and greater creativity. Some findings even point to higher profits for companies that have women on their boards.

Businesses that aren't diverse could be limiting their success when it comes to making products or services meant to transform the planet.

"You can't change a world that you don't understand," said Sherrell Dorsey, founder of the newsletter ThePLUG, which focuses on investors and founders of color.

And as Wilkerson noted, when tech companies say, "We want to change the world," that "we" is essentially the group of white guys who work there. It's a pretty homogenous we.

Broadening the makeup of the industry will take bigger goals, and more-radical changes to hiring, retention and promotion. Heather Terenzio leads the Techtonic Group, a Colorado-based software development services firm. She puts it this way:

Diversity, she says, "isn't just going to show up at your door."

Solving for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."

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