Tech’s Diversity Problem Isn’t Just About Education

It's been a revealing summer for Silicon Valley. Over the past couple of months, global tech behemoths from Google and eBay to LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook have been rolling out data to the public on the demographic breakdown of their workforces.

The data itself hasn't been terribly surprising— tech companies have long had a reputation for being overwhelmingly white and male, and the numbers they’ve revealed largely confirm this. Google, the first to share, reported in May that 70 percent of its workforce is male and a whopping 91 percent are white or Asian. Apple, which just revealed its numbers on Tuesday, similarly reported that 70 percent of its total workforce is male, and white or Asian, and 72 percent of executive level positions are held by men.

What’s notable is that they’re sharing the data at all. The tech industry has long been reticent about publicly revealing its track record when it comes to diversity in hiring. (After seeing the data, it’s easy to understand why.) But with each company reveal of employee demographic numbers, the conversation on how to make the industry’s workforce more diverse overall has moved further to the forefront. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, released a statement, widely circulated in the media, saying he is “not satisfied” with the numbers and that the company has been “working hard” to improve them — though, admittedly, progress has been slow.

That’s in part because there aren’t many women or minority in the pipeline. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, told USA Today, “We are not going to fix the numbers for under-representation in technology or any industry until we fix our education system and until we fix the stereotypes about women and minorities in math and science."

Yet education won’t solve it entirely either. Programs that encourage women and minorities to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees, and non-profit training and education programs like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, certainly go a long way in helping to improve the numbers. But even women and minorities who have the credentials don’t always use them. Research shows, for example, that while women have accounted for about 20 percent of engineering degrees over the last two decades, they account for fewer than 11 percent of all engineers. That’s because it’s not just about filling the pipeline with prospects. It’s also about making the efforts to both recruit and retain female and minority talent.

Tech companies would benefit from strategic recruiting programs that insure that qualified women and minority candidates are identified and interviewed by hiring managers. In an industry where "culture fit" is highly valued, companies must also work to make the culture more hospitable to those who are not white or male. Addressing issues like the gender pay gap, parental leave policies and a workplace environment that’s “disrespectful,” even “chilly,” to women will play a large role in whether tech companies can achieve and maintain the employee diversity they say they are trying to achieve.

Getting more women and minorities into the pipeline will help, but addressing the internal factors that keep those numbers low is another crucial step to insure a more diverse tech workforce. It’s laudable that Google, Apple and other industry leaders are acknowledging the extent of the problem. Now it's time for them to reveal what they’re doing to solve it. 

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