Why Silicon Valley’s Diversity Matters to All of US

In many respects, Silicon Valley is the economic envy of the U.S. The area south of the San Francisco Bay led the nation in job growth in 2011 and in 2013, job growth in the South Bay and San Francisco metro areas was more than twice as fast as the countrywide rate. The technology sector drives this growth. "The Bay Area, and particularly, the South Bay and San Francisco, are the epicenter for social media, mobile and Internet commerce," said Michael Bernick, a research fellow with the Milken Institute and a former California Employment Development Department director. "These strengths are why the Bay Area outpaces the state and the nation." Demand is so strong for technology skills that Bay Area unemployment for people in the tech sector ranges from 1 percent to 3 percent.

But how inclusive are the opportunities that Silicon Valley offers? This week, we saw evidence that it is not for some groups. Although tech is a key driver of the economy and makes products that many Americans use every day, it does not come close to reflecting the demographics of the country — in terms of sex, age or race. The lopsided numbers persist among engineers, founders and boards of directors.

In the United States work force over all, 80 percent of employees are white, 12 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian. Forty-seven percent of the total work force in the United States are women and 20 percent of software developers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On May 28, Google, the top-ranked U.S. employer for compensation and benefits, posted a blog entry, Getting to work on diversity at Google, revealing statistics on the makeup of its work force — and offered a stark glance at how Silicon Valley remains a man’s world. Only 30 percent of Google’s 46,170 employees worldwide are women and 17 percent of its technical employees are women. Of its United States employees, 61 percent are white, 2 percent are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. About one-third are Asian — well above the national average — and 4 percent are of two or more races. Of Google’s technical staff, 60 percent are white, 1 percent are black, 2 percent are Hispanic, 34 percent are Asian and 3 percent are of two or more races.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the civil rights activist, has been pressuring tech companies to release data on the makeup of their workforces. When he appeared at Google’s shareholders meeting this month, David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer,surprised people when he said the company would release the data. Other tech companies at which Rev. Jackson has appeared, including Hewlett-Packard and Facebook, have not released diversity statistics about their companies. Google said that it hoped, by releasing its data, it would start a dialogue.

In its blog post this week, Google said there are lots of reasons why technology companies like Google struggle to recruit and retain women and minorities. Only 18.5 percent of high school students who took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science last year were girls. In eight states, no Hispanic students took the test and in 12 states, no black students took it. Women earn roughly 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics make up under 10 percent of U.S. college grads and collect fewer than 5 percent of degrees in computer science majors, respectively. Google highlighted that it has invested a lot of time and energy in education: 1) giving more than $40 million to organizations working to bring computer science education to women and girls; and 2) working with historically black colleges and universities to elevate coursework and attendance in computer science.

But not all the blame can be attributed to the education system. There can be a sexist culture that turns away women, as evidenced by the high attrition rate among technical women as compared to men. And women who try to start tech companies face exclusion by a venture capital network dominated by a chummy fraternity of men. Stanford University’s Vivek Wadhwa told PBS’s Gwen Ifill, “Frankly, Silicon Valley is a boys club. It’s like a frat club run wild, is what I often say, because you have young kids hiring other young kids. And they don’t have the sensitivity that big companies do. They don’t understand the importance of diversity. They don’t understand why they have to be inclusive and so on. So, Silicon Valley has -- now it’s time for Silicon Valley to grow up and to start behaving responsibly.”

Google’s Laszlo Bock admitted, “Most people are not overtly sexist or racist or homophobic, but we’re human beings. And, as a result, we like people who are like us, who watch the same shows, who like the same food, who have the same backgrounds. So we bring this unconscious bias to everything we do. And what we see in every workplace and what we have seen in Google is the risk that there is an impact. So part of it is in the workplace. And, as an employer, we feel we have an opportunity to actually help people come to grips with what unconscious biases they have.”

Telle Whitney of the Anita Borg Institute said retention is also part of the solution. “[W]omen leave technology at twice the rate of men. And, right now, there’s a pretty serious image problem in terms of what we do…. what we really need is for companies like Google to make the place, once they come work there, to stay. Retention is as important as the pipeline.”

Writing in the Washington Post this week, Wadhwa related the story of Humin, a start-up he advises, which worked with women’s groups to identify top talent in unconventional ways. Percy Rajani, Humin’s Vice President of Product and Engineering, felt that the company could teach its recruits programming languages and processes, and that intelligence, motivation, and personality were the key traits to recruit. Humin did succeed in assembling an exceptional and diverse engineering team. By broadening its search process, it found a depth and breadth of female talent, especially amongst developers whose original background was in engineering fields other than computer science. Today, one third of Humin’s 18-person engineering team are women.

Wadhwa believes that technology companies need to rethink the way they recruit. They need to look at how jobs are defined so they don’t exclude women, who have a tendency, unlike males, to pass up opportunities for which they don’t have the exact skills. They need to look beyond the usual recruitment grounds by interviewing from universities where there are high proportions of women and minorities, as well as at conferences that women engineers attend. They need to insist that, for every job opening, at least one woman and minority member be interviewed, and that the interviewing committee be diverse. And they need to make sure that the hiring is for competency rather than for credentials.

Why is a diverse work force so important? The data — which in Silicon Valley usually reigns supreme — shows that diversity of groups benefits research, development, innovation and profit:

  • What difference does it make if women don't join the tech workforce in the same numbers that men do? asked Mike Cassidy in the San Jose Mercury News. “It turns out it makes a huge difference. The dearth of women in computing has the potential to slow the U.S. economy, which needs more students in the pipeline to feed its need for more programmers. It harms women by excluding them from some of the best jobs in the country. And it damages U.S. companies, which studies show would benefit from more diverse teams.”
  • Google’s Bock said, “[T]here are seven billion potential users on the planet of our product, and we’re going develop the best product if they actually have some input into what we are building and we understand where they are coming from.”
  • Stanford’s Wadhwa highlights that more women than men use social-networking apps on mobile phones. And products designed and developed by males don’t usually incorporate the intricacies of gender and race. “The technology industry is unnecessarily holding itself back by hiding its diversity data and pretending there isn’t a problem. If it comes clean, as Google just has, it can start having informed discussions about its problems and their solutions,” Wadhwa concludes.
  • Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington-Seattle, says “Engineering (particularly of software) is a hugely creative endeavor. Greater diversity -- more points of view -- yields a better result.”

On May 27, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a symposium that sought to find solutions for providing minorities and women with proven pathways for obtaining good jobs and a higher standard of living through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The event, organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, highlighted that now, 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, education in the United States remains separate and unequal for many minorities, children with disabilities and those living in high-poverty areas. STEM is one area that has great potential to reverse that trend and help the United States maintain a competitive edge, experts noted. Securing America’s future in science, technology, engineering and math fields requires more than expanding opportunities for women. Promoting interest and opportunities for minorities also should be a national imperative, particularly as more than half of children born in the U.S. today are of minority descent. The symposium explored the need to pique girls' and minority children's interest in science and math; the importance of expanding access to Advanced Placement courses and broadband access; and the need for more technology-competent teachers.

The tech industry is also offering, not surprisingly, some tech-based solutions.

Entelo, which helps high-profile tech companies with recruiting, launched a new product, Entelo Diversity. For $10,000 a year, organizations can target certain groups, like women, black men, or "old" people, with certain skills for job openings using Entelo's "proprietary algorithm." Entelo's CEO Jon Bischke said, “there's active discrimination going on today and we hope this will mitigate that." The technology claims to sift through already qualified candidates, assuring no "token" hires.

The nonprofit Code.org aims to boost computer science skills by making classes available in more schools. Specifically, they want to make coding part of the core curriculum in education, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. Currently, just 10 percent of U.S. schools offer computer science classes. Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi and Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe note that there’s a yawning gap between graduating computer science students and open positions. “It drives me crazy when Obama says we need more STEM graduates,” Klawe said. “Because we overproduce in biology and chemistry in particular, and then they don’t get jobs that use any of that education.” She added that programming skills help students or professionals in any field they choose. “From my perspective, computer science is something that everyone needs,” she said. So far, Code.org has raised about $12 million from companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. But to really solve the problem, Partovi said they’d need about $300 million.

Under Klawe’s leadership, Harvey Mudd College just handed out more engineering degrees to women than men, and the college has boosted female computer science graduates from 10 percent in 2006 to 40 percent currently. The school has instituted a series of changes to improve female participation in the field, including changing how classes are described, dividing students up according to experience levels, finding ways for students to apply their skills beyond the classes and exposing them to female role models in the industry. Klawe said companies should help spread that mission by pressuring the universities they work with to shift practices in similar ways. Colleges need to make introduction to computer science courses “more relevant, engaging and fun,” she said.

The San Jose Mercury News' Michelle Quinn wrote this week that Silicon Valley companies, big and small, should follow Google's lead and disclose demographic information about their workforces. Companies should reveal annually their global, U.S. and Silicon Valley workforce by gender, race, ethnicity and age and by specific roles, such as leadership, tech, non-tech. They should reveal demographics when it comes to new hires, retention and promotion. All company information should be centrally located, easy to audit by an outside auditor so we can be sure of its veracity and that we are looking at the same categories. And it should be historical so that outsiders and insiders alike can see if the company is becoming more or less diverse over time.

Here's why, Quinn writes:

"Disclosure of the race, ethnicity and gender of a company's workers is an act of goodwill to the community, a clear sign that the tech industry is ready to have a frank discussion about the issue, instead of deflecting the conversation to talking about their cool science and math K-12 initiatives. This kind of disclosure matters now more than ever because the Bay Area is engaged in a wide-ranging conversation over who benefits from the tech industry's success. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur and create the next Facebook, or a venture capitalist picking and choosing the next winners. But most of us need a job and the Bay Area is tech's town. If companies are essentially a caste system, with roles dominated by people of a certain gender, race or age, that's information a job seeker needs."

Here's Quinn's bottom line: "If the diversity issue is tied to a company's ability to innovate, as Google and others claim, shouldn't shareholders of public companies put pressure on firms demanding more information and improved diversity?"

This week, Google took a step in the right direction; let's see if Silicon Valley follows. And, along the way, we'll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.