The Lack Of Diversity In Tech Is A Cultural Issue

Author

Bonnie Marcus, Contributor

August 12, 2015

On August 4th, the First-Ever White House Demo Day was organized to showcase women and minority founders in technology. The event, along with President Obama’s call for action, sparked some major tech companies to announce new diversity initiatives. Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon all jumped on the bandwagon to demonstrate that they are committed to improving their recruitment and hiring of women and minorities.

Recently, Pinterest made a bold public announcement. Addressing their commitment to increased diversity, they shared their hiring goals for women and minorities for 2016 along with programs and initiatives to support the achievement of those stated objectives. By doing so, Pinterest not only challenged themselves but other tech companies to get serious about their diversity efforts and be accountable for results.

Tech companies are experiencing growing pressure to diversify their workforce which is predominantly white, Asian, and male. The increased public scrutiny has resulted in some larger tech companies disclosing their employee information, which indicates little progress. A recent survey of the top 9 tech companies in Silicon Valley by Fortune reveals that on average, women comprise about one-third of the workforce. That gap expands the higher up you go in an organization, with the best company showing women holding 29% of leadership jobs. In general, companies made slightly better progress on ethnic diversity than they did on increasing their percentages of female employees, although not in leadership roles.

It has been a commonly held belief that the gender gap in tech is primarily a pipeline issue; that there are simply not enough girls studying math and science. Recently updated information indicates an equal number of high school girls and boys participating in STEM electives, and at Stanford and Berkeley, 50% of the introductory computer science students are women. That may be the case, but the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that twice as many men as women with the same qualifications were working in STEM fields.

A USA Today study discloses that top universities graduate Black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering students at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them. Although these companies state they don’t have a qualified pool of applicants, the evidence does not support that claim.

If it’s not a pipeline issue, why don’t we see a greater representation of minorities and women in STEM industries?

The answer is we don’t see more progress because the pipeline concern is not the primary reason for the discouraging statistics. There’s a bigger issue. It’s the culture. We can attempt to solve the problem by educating more women and minorities and challenging hiring practices which are all important initiatives, but the underlying issue that must be addressed to solve this problem is the hidden and often overt discrimination that prevails in the tech industry.

The reality is that gender and racial bias is so ubiquitous in the technology industry that it forces talented female and minority employees to leave. Companies can hire more minorities and women but without addressing this critical issue, they will not experience improvement in diversity.

Kieran Snyder, a former senior leader at Microsoft and Amazon and now CEO and co-founder of Textio, interviewed 716 women who held tech positions at 654 companies in 43 states. On average, these women worked in tech for seven years and then left. Kieran asked these women specifically why they opted out.

Some 192 women (27%) cited discomfort working in these companies. The overt or implicit discrimination was a primary factor in their decision to leave tech. That’s just over a quarter of the women surveyed. Several of them mentioned discrimination related to their age, race, or sexuality in addition to gender and motherhood. They also stated that lack of flexible work arrangements, the unsupportive work environment, or a salary that was inadequate to pay for childcare all contributed to their decision to leave.

In another study of women of color in science done at UC Hastings College of Law, 100% of the sixty women scientists interviewed reported gender and racial bias. Nearly half of the Black and Latina scientists reported they had been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff, and the majority of Black, Latina, and Asian-American women stated they felt compelled to provide more proof to co-workers that they were as competent as their male peers. More than half of the participants reported receiving backlash when they expressed anger or assertiveness at work. Sixty-four percent who are mothers experienced discrimination and gender stereotyping.

To realize their diversity goals, companies must address their cultural issues. Those organizations that recognize the bias and unfair workplace practices can design customized programs to help retain their talented employees. I have some suggestions for those companies that are committed to this initiative.

First, retain an outside firm to do a thorough assessment of the culture of the organization including discrimination in pay and hiring practices. Secure senior leadership commitment to a corrective action plan that addresses gender and racial issues. Without senior leadership sponsorship these programs often fail.

Second, offer mandatory training in unconscious bias for every employee. I think Pinterest is on the right track including this initiative in their diversity plan. It is imperative that all employees at every level of the organization understand their own bias and subsequent behavior.

Third, develop career paths that enable employees to see their potential advancement opportunities. Without a clearly defined plan and support, talented employees lose interest and leave believing the company is not invested in their success.

Fourth, develop specific coaching and training programs for women and minorities on relational skills such as strategic networking and relationship building, negotiation, consensus building and self-promotion with the goal of guiding employees to create visibility, credibility, and influence within their organization.

Fifth, create mentor programs with the goal of helping women and minorities understand the politics and culture of their organization and specifically hone their political skill. Mentors must be committed to giving frank, honest assessments of the company environment along with strategies for positioning themselves. Mentors must also be committed to helping mentees build a critical support network of allies and champions.

With the increased public awareness of the lack of diversity in technology and other STEM fields, companies will experience more pressure to disclose their statistics and be accountable for reaching diversity objectives. It is time for organizations to address their cultural bias and create initiatives to retain women and minorities. Addressing bias in workplace practices along with providing employees with the tools to survive and thrive in the workplace will have a positive impact on diversity.

If you found this article interesting, please check out my website for more resources and follow me on Twitter. My book, The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Wiley, March 2015) provides a road map for women to navigate office politics and get the promotions they deserve.

 

This article was written by Bonnie Marcus from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

 

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