Big tech companies swear their “commitment to diversity” knows no bounds.
In reality, many of them employ disproportionately few people of color. Only 5.5 percent of Google and less than 4 percent of Facebook is Black, according to their 2020 diversity reports — compared to 13.5 percent of the U.S. population overall.
The numbers are even worse for high-paying technical roles. Only 9 percent of Apple’s employees were Black in 2018, the last year it released a diversity report. For technical roles, that drops to 6 percent, the same as in 2014.
For the Black employees who are hired, Silicon Valley can be a difficult place to thrive. Accusations of ‘whitewashed’ editorial practices at Snap. Claims of barriers to advancement at Facebook. The truth is that most of them have a long way to go.
“Tying the lack of diversity in tech to overt racism and structural and institutional racism was incredibly rare,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)-oriented consulting firm ReadySet. “We’re only now at the point where we’re really doing this. So in some ways, it’s really exciting that people are making those connections.”
“A commitment is one thing. Action is another.”
However, Hutchinson wonders if these companies will follow through.
As Black Lives Matter demonstrations recently erupted across the country, Silicon Valley execs and power brokers to make the tech industry more equitable. The industry has seen this sentiment before. Following a campaign from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition, Google released its first annual diversity report in 2014, and committed to increasing the representation of women and people of color in its workforce. Other tech giants followed suit.
Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. Google reportedly cut one popular diversity program entirely (although Google denies this report). Multiple companies have let go of DEI staff amid the coronavirus pandemic. And Apple still hasn’t released a diversity report for 2019 or 2020. (Mashable reached out to Apple to ask why it stopped releasing the reports, and will update if it responds.)
Things changed after Donald Trump was elected because tech firms did not want to appear “liberal,” said Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code2040, an organization that works to empower people of color in tech. The message from the Obama White House — that diversity in tech was important to the government— evaporated.
Of course, tech companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and others swear that DEI is still important to them. However, their past promises to improve were “very general,” according to Monterroso, with goals such as “diversify our workforce” stated alongside the assurance that “diversity is important to us.” That led to less scrutiny over lackluster progress.
Now, companies are putting out new commitments with more concrete goals. This time around, experts are hoping for real change.
“We’re still at the beginning of this,” Hutchinson said. “A commitment is one thing, action is another.”
That involves a company truly looking inward to address its own problems, and treating a “commitment to diversity” like any other strategic initiative — not just a public talking point.
Here’s how tech companies can turn words into diverse workplaces.
1. Identify internal problem areas with an audit
Before you start building something, you have to get the lay of the land. The same goes for DEI initiatives. And one of the best ways to do that is to undertake a company audit to see what the current state of DEI is at your company.
“You have to understand with data what is happening,” Monterroso said. “Is your biggest problem in recruiting? Is it in retention? Is it the whole strand from hiring to onboarding to exit that is poisoned? You have to understand what is happening, so that you can target your first intervention to get the biggest bang for your buck.”
Beyond getting representation numbers, an audit will look at numerical and experiential data like retention of Black and brown employees, whether people of color are assessed on par with white colleagues in performance reviews, whether your workforce is actually hostile to diversity initiatives, and more. Along with assessing the experiences and attitudes of employees, a company can tell if there is systemic bias if people of color are not retained or reviewed at the same rates as their white colleagues.
An audit at a tech company needs to examine representation in technical roles. Otherwise your company could be re-enforcing unequal power structures and stereotypes in which women and people of color serve in support roles, not as engineers and executives.
There are firms (including Hutchinson’s ReadySet) that specialize in these sorts of diversity audits. After demand for anti-racist training exploded in the wake Black Lives Matter protests this spring, the consulting firm Awaken created a spreadsheet of more than 300 Black-owned organizations offering these services.
Audits can also be done internally by a person with relevant expertise. Regardless, they should be equipped with a budget, a team, and real institutional power (we’ll talk about this more later).
2. Treat it like any other business decision: Make a strategy
Once you’ve undertaken an audit, you can build your road map. That involves fixing internal problems first, as opposed to just ramping up hiring, which companies often focus on first, according to Hutchinson.
“As tempting as it is to start with hiring, the first thing I always recommend, start with diagnosis and strategy,” Hutchinson said. “And really figure out where the big problems in your organization are. And I think that determines the sequence of what you’re going to do.”
Too often, not committing to a strategy informed by an audit, with specific benchmarks to meet, is where DEI commitments go wrong. Treat the commitment to make your workplace more equitable just as you would any other business initiative.
Not committing to a strategy informed by an audit, with specific benchmarks to meet, is where DEI commitments go wrong
“There is no other department in all of business, or no other initiative in all of business, where you wouldn’t check the lay of the land and the problems that are there before you start to build a strategy to attack the problem,” Monterroso said. “This is the only one where that happens.”
A strategy will differ from company to company. For example, one company might focus on restructuring DEI, so it’s embedded throughout the company, not siloed in HR. Another might focus on devoting staff to DEI specifically.
What plans should have in common is specificity. Previous diversity efforts failed because there were no concrete goals, just vague commitments to diversity.
Just look at Facebook’s 2014 commitments, which outline new partnerships and initiatives, without any hard promises. Today, its 2020 diversity report shows that in the six years since, the number of Black employees has only increased from 2 percent to 3.9 percent, with most of that growth occurring in non-technical roles.
3. Provide internal transparency, and public accountability
While specific employees should be empowered to implement DEI initiatives, it’s important to share the vision of the company — and the reality of the situation — with employees. Being transparent about the results of the audit, and outlining the strategy, makes clear to employees that this is a priority.
“It’s like any change management initiative in any department,” Monterroso said. “You have to have a vision for it, and you have to set a vision for your team. And then you set it externally, and create some good winds.”
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, I keep seeing company leaders setting expectations without realizing what it really takes to deliver on those promises. And when employees get cynical and angry for continued unfulfilled promises, leaders are flabbergasted. Hmm.
— Michelle Kim (she/her) (@mjmichellekim) August 6, 2020
Getting everyone on board is especially important in tech, which has traditionally celebrated figures like the lone coder plugging away at all hours, or the socially grating yet visionary entrepreneur. But to change a culture requires group buy-in.
“Tech has a culture of individualism,” Hutchinson said.”But actually when we’re thinking about improving companies, collective action works better.”
Sometimes, companies undertake this process backward: they’ll make a public-facing statement before communicating internally. But public commitments to diversity can keep businesses accountable, as long as they do the internal work first, and thoughtfully own up to their shortcomings.
4. Tackle problem areas
A former Dropbox employee named Angelica Coleman made waves in tech in 2015 when she wrote on Facebook that, as a Black employee, the racial insensitivity of colleagues and management made it impossible for her to advance. Her story, and others like it, show that before jumping into hiring, companies often have to root out bias that’s entrenched in company systems, power structures, and even employee attitudes.
It’s crucial to undertake this difficult work first.
“You’re just wasting your time if you don’t have all those things in place before you hire, because guaranteed bias is going to affect their hiring process,” Hutchinson said. “It’s going to affect how those candidates are vetted. It’s going to affect how they’re onboard[ed]. It’s going to affect their level of compensation, the performance reviews.”
There are many factors that can undermine efforts to hire and retain diverse candidates, and foster an inclusive environment. Here are just a few:
Improving interview skills to overcome unconscious bias.
Removing university pedigree and GPA as part of the screening process. Structural racism limits the representation and success of Black and brown students at elite universities, and practices like legacy admissions further compound privilege.
Equipping the C-Suite with racial and equity coaching: “Your leaders are going to have to lead around something many of them are unfamiliar with, and are quite frankly, very afraid of messing up,” Monterroso said. “They should get coaching for why there is a business case for this.” Management will need a strong and informed voice to lead employees in undertaking this work.
Strategies to deal with people fighting against DEI: “You have a strategy for how you’re going to deal with the people that are incredibly adversarial, and disagree with moving into the direction of inclusion,” Monterroso said. “You have to have lines in the sand that you’ve drawn off, because those folks will become louder and louder.”
Reviewing performance metrics to see if they are disproportionately working against people of color.
Putting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which are community support groups for minority or other cultural communities, in place.
Auditing salaries to make sure people of color are paid equally.
5. Critically examine your product
Recently, tech products like and came under fire for discrimination. Racial bias runs through algorithms that , , and . If you are a company that wants to follow “commitments” to diversity with action, examine what your company produces, and not just who it employs.
Creating products that don’t have racist undercurrents is another reason companies need to pay special attention to their technical workforce. Aside from the potential for a homogeneous workforce to be more , algorithms and other tech products of their creators.
6. Require an investment in the success of DEI at the highest levels of the company
To set a standard for how important DEI is to the company, executive performance can be tied to DEI success. The people in charge of DEI should also report to the highest levels of the organization, and not just be shunted off into one department, like HR. This helps ensure it is a company-wide initiative, making everyone accountable.
At the same time, companies need to be conscious that they are not over-burdening the people of color who might be put in these positions. That’s why DEI goals like fostering empathetic managers need to be embedded throughout the company, not just relegated to a single department.
Often, companies hire a VP or other head of DEI, and call it a day. If companies (and executives) do this before doing the auditing and strategy legwork, it means they are outsourcing the hard work, not internalizing it. Monterroso recommends hiring this type of role when a company is “ready,” which means it has done internal reflection first.
“If you have jumped to hire someone, that is an exporting of your own leadership labor to another human before really doing an evaluation for yourself first,” Monterroso said.
Hutchinson advocates for hiring a head of DEI, as long they report to the C-Suite, and have a team, a budget, and are accountable for success in a measurable way. And while people of color should not bear the brunt of educating colleagues, ensure that the experiences of Black and brown employees inform this work, and that people of color are in leadership positions with the actual power to make change.
“You need to have executives in charge of your diversity inclusion initiatives that are empowered to make tough decisions to really change the culture of your company,” Hutchinson said. “You have to empower them with a budget and a team and you also have to empower them with real institutional power to make decisions that may be tough decisions but are best for the culture of the company.”
7. If you’re at a young startup, start early
A company with just a handful of employees has the opportunity to build an inclusive and equitable workforce from the ground up. Hutchinson actually sees building DEI into a startup from its earliest days as an asset.
“The earlier you start thinking about these issues, and having these as your goals, embedding this into your culture, the better,” Hutchinson said. “The bigger you are, the harder this is to do. And then the more stuff you have to undo.”
A smaller company also gives employees the opportunity to have an impact. So if you work at a startup, and notice, hey, all the coders are young dudes from Ivy League schools, Hutchinson says you can try to influence your peers, and eventually your managers, to change the culture.
8. Commit to a continual effort
Making sure your workplace is equitable is not a problem you can solve once, and expect to roll on forever. It is something that companies and employees will have to commit to over and over again.
“The idea that organizations, workplaces by default are going to be inclusive, it’s fundamentally flawed,” Hutchinson said. “We’re just by default going to be exclusive, because that’s the way our labor and our workforce was built in America. And so we have to make conscious efforts over time to fix that. The job doesn’t really stop.”