Diversity and Inclusion in Tech: The Pathway Forward

Diversity and Inclusion in Tech: The Pathway Forward

It’s no mystery that tech has a diversity problem. Despite years of pledges to promote more underrepresented candidates and countless diversity reports, the numbers have barely budged. The industry has long paid lip service to diversity ideals, touting how diverse workforces lead to better decision-making. Yet little progress has actually been made in increasing the representation of women and minorities in tech. The statistics are especially stark when looking at the top ranks of tech companies and venture capital firms.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the social injustices the movement has illuminated, tech companies have become all the more alert to the need for concrete changes. Increased energy has been put behind initiatives such as hiring diversity & inclusion managers, implementing mentorship programs, and investing in initiatives to improve the pipeline of women and minorities with technical skillsets.

Less than 5% of all tech employees at Facebook, Slack, Microsoft and Salesforce are Black. Uber, Lyft and Twitter have fared only marginally better, with Black tech workers comprising less than 10% of the workforce of each respective company. These numbers drop even more when focusing in on top leadership posts. For example, while Apple’s workforce is overall 9% Black, only 3% of leadership positions are occupied by Blacks.

The numbers for other underrepresented populations are similarly staggering. Although the number of women in technical positions has increased a bit more noticeably, tech companies are nowhere near parity. Facebook reported an increase from 15% women in technical roles in 2014 to 23% in 2019 and Google reported a similar jump. Bari Williams, a former senior counsel at Facebook who now is the legal chief at startup Human Interest, attributes part of the problem to having “metrics, but no consequences.” While there has been no shortage of data produced by the analytically-minded tech industry on diversity, there have been limited consequences for not meeting metrics.

Despite the steep slope to climb in order to noticeably push the numbers up, some tech companies are committed to sustained inclusivity efforts. One such company is Relativity, the Chicago-based data analytics software company. Relativity has emphasized educational initiatives. By raising awareness of the issues that disproportionately impact communities of color, women and LGBTQ individuals, the company hopes to foster introspection amongst employees that will drive larger changes.

One way Relativity has gone about ramping up educational resources is through partnerships with diverse professional groups and universities. The company has also committed funds to public schools in the Chicago area to purchase computers so that low-income students will have the opportunity to develop programming skills starting from a young age.

Livongo, the digital health management startup offering personalized health advice to people with chronic conditions through smart devices, has devoted substantial resources to unconscious bias training. In the company’s hiring practices, employees and recruiters place an increased emphasis on diversity as an important consideration in hiring decisions. The results of such efforts are already showing. In 2019 Livongo achieved a significant gender parity milestone, with women holding 52% of all management-level positions at the company. Within the company, they created the “She Powers Health” awards to recognize employees who embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace and work toward women’s empowerment.

While many companies have focused their efforts internally on fostering diverse talent and mentorship initiatives, other companies have focused on shaping the external environment as a means to facilitate internal changes. Compass, the New York real estate startup using technology to disrupt the real estate brokerage industry, has pledged to only work with lawyers, accountants, bankers and other advisors that have at least one Black person on their teams. They also created the “15% Pledge” that calls for real estate agents to allocate 15% of their vendor spending to Black-owned businesses. On a large-scale this could have noticeable impact, as there are over 2 million real estate agents in the United States that rely on services from vendors such as photographers, painters, landscapers, contractors and attorneys. By making an effort to ensure teams are adequately diverse, Compass is creating opportunities for diverse workers to get the types of experiences that could lead to promotion at the company.

Despite efforts focused on hiring individuals from underrepresented backgrounds and developing a pipeline of diverse candidates, employee retention has remained an ongoing dilemma. Margaret Neale, a Stanford professor in organizational behavior, observes that “there continues to be hiring, but there’s not stickiness to those hires. There’s a substantial shedding of folks of color at much higher proportions given the total numbers that exist.”

It can be tricky for unrepresented minorities to find mentors within a company to foster their career development. Without a sponsor or role model positioned higher up in the corporate ladder, minorities might feel that opportunities to ascend into leadership roles are limited. The company’s culture also plays an important role in creating a sustainable work environment for diverse tech employees.

It is clear that many challenges still lie ahead in order to truly move the needle and create more inclusive workplaces. However, the conversations around social inequality sparked by recent events have increased the tech industry’s commitment to leveling the playing field.