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Analysis Culture

Facebook's 'so white and male' leadership highlights bigger diversity issue

Where’s the progress?

facebook-f8-mark-zuckerberg-2018-0274

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leads an executive team that's largely made up of white men. 

James Martin/CNET

Somehow, Facebook and its executive team managed to stir up controversy again. 

The company told employees earlier this week about major changes in leadership, according to a report Tuesday by Recode. Among the biggest moves: Chris Cox, Facebook's product guru and a close confidante of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will take control of the company's entire lineup of apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. David Marcus, who used to run Messenger, will lead a new division focused on blockchain technology.

These are massive moves for a company that boasted relatively little change in its upper ranks. But between data breaches and accusations that Russian trolls exploited Facebook to meddle in the US presidential campaign, change is probably good, right? The only problem: An org chart published by Recode called attention to an upper management that's very white and very male.

Facebook leadership, of course, includes COO Sheryl Sandberg, one of Silicon Valley's highest-profile executives and Zuckerberg's right hand. But in that org chart, only one out of the 15 executives is a woman. That's Naomi Gleit, vice president of Social Good, which works with nonprofit organizations and developed the social network's "donate" button. She also runs product management for the entire company.

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"Wow, Facebook product leadership is so white and male," Ellen Pao, former partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, wrote on Twitter. "Explains why they don't understand the problems with their products." Pao made headlines in 2015 for her unsuccessful lawsuit against the storied VC firm for gender discrimination.

It's the latest flap in a company going through its biggest existential crisis since the social network famously began in Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room 14 years ago. Facebook is still reeling from the scandal that erupted in March after a whistleblower revealed that data consultancy Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed personal data on up to 87 million people.

The org chart published by Recode illustrates that for all the lip service Silicon Valley pays diversity, it's just that. Facebook's latest diversity report in August 2017 tells us senior leadership is 72 percent male and 71 percent white. It's far from the only company struggling to broaden its leadership ranks. The numbers of women and minorities in tech positions are low to begin with and tend to drop even further up the corporate ladder.

"Fundamentally, we haven't seen all that much change," said Genie Gratto, senior director of marketing communications and public relations for AnitaB.org, an organization for the advancement of women in computing. "We certainly aren't seeing the needle move as much as we would like to see in leadership or at any level in the tech industry in the last five years or so."

Facebook acknowledges it can do more.

"We can always do better on representation," a spokesman said in a statement. "We are transparent about our need for more senior women, especially on the technical side."

The broader problem of diversity

Sandberg and Gleit, of course, aren't the only woman leaders at Facebook. There's also Fidji Simo, Facebook's vice president heading up video; Deb Liu, vice president of Facebook Marketplace; and Julie Zhuo, the vice president running all design for the Facebook app; and others. 

But they're in the minority -- a mirror of the rest of the industry.

Diversity reports from tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft show the industry is dominated largely by white men. That's true even as businesses -- notably Intel, which has pegged executive compensation to diversity -- roll out initiatives like employee resource groups and training on topics such as unconscious bias. (Unconscious bias is the idea that we subconsciously reward people who look like us and negatively perceive those who don't.)

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has been an outspoken advocate of diversifying the workforce. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The problem doesn't just affect recruitment. It directly influences retention, too.

The Kapor Center for Social Impact, for example, released a survey in April 2017 that examined why people leave tech, after years spent getting the right academic degrees and rising up the ranks. Reasons include sexism, racism, bullying, harassment,  discrimination and a lack of opportunity. A lack of flexibility is also a problem (women tend to bear the brunt of family care responsibilities and are affected disproportionately). Kapor estimates the turnover costs the industry about $16 billion every year.

When people leave, that shrinks the pool even further.

Why this matters

Having a more diverse workforce isn't just a matter of social justice. There are real business benefits when companies have different perspectives and backgrounds to call on.

That broader perspective is critical as Silicon Valley develops and hones technologies like artificial intelligence.

"There is a bias to what kinds of problems we think are important, what kinds of research we think are important, and where we think AI should go," Timnit Gebru, a member of the fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics in AI group for Microsoft, told the MIT Technology Review. "If we don't have diversity in our set of researchers, we are not going to address problems that are faced by the majority of people in the world."

Diversity in leadership also shows a company's workforce that there's a career path ahead, which can be helpful for retaining tech talent. Just as important, there's a growing body of evidence that suggests companies with diverse leadership perform better, deliver greater innovation -- and make more money.  

Consulting group DDI, found the best performing companies have more women in leadership roles. McKinsey & Co., Catalyst and others report that businesses with women on their boards make better decisions and have substantially higher profit, sales and return on investment than their less-diverse rivals.

"The companies that create inclusive cultures retain women and retain more of a diverse and inclusive set of employees, and they are successful when they do that," Gratto said.

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