Not Enough Diversity in Silicon Valley

Google recently released data on the racial and gender breakdown of its employees. The numbers showed what many have long argued about the tech industry at large—that women of all races and racial minority men are significantly underrepresented at all levels. Here are some facts from the article that illustrate the issue:

“Thirty percent of Google’s 46,170 employees worldwide are women…and 17 percent of its technical employees are women. Comparatively, 47 percent of the total work force in the United States is women and 20 percent of software developers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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.

In the United States work force over all, 80 percent of employees are white, 12 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Despite the terribly low representation of women and minorities at the company, what is somewhat optimistic about this news is that unlike many of its peers in the tech industry (Facebook, for instance, refuses to release data about the diversity of its workforce), Google states that it is interested in changing them and creating a more diverse employee base. This change is important, as sociological research has shown that increased diversity benefits corporations’ bottom lines. Thus, it is actually to Google’s advantage, and that of other tech companies, to work proactively to create a workforce that is not comprised primarily of young white men.

For Google to do this successfully, however, they need to be mindful of a common trap that often befalls today’s companies. Many sociologists have noted that while most large corporations today have diversity officers and proclaim their commitment to creating a diverse workforce, these initiatives have become broadly defined so as to obscure the specific needs and challenges of groups that experience historical and ongoing disadvantage. This then makes it less likely that companies will embrace policies that allow them to increase their ranks of underrepresented minorities.

In other words, corporate diversity policies place the same emphasis on incorporating “diverse viewpoints” as they do on increasing the presence of women and racial minority men who continue to face structural disadvantages that lead to their underrepresentation in the first place. This type of framing can help keep companies from making real inroads among the groups who are most underrepresented. Christine Williams, Kristine Kilanski, and Chandra Muller have an excellent forthcoming piece about this very issue in the peer-reviewed journal Work & Occupations.

It is also useful to think about the ways institutional practices create disparities in the tech pipeline. A recent USA Today article noted that many schools, particularly in lower income or predominantly minority areas, do not offer computer science or Advanced Placement (AP) courses in STEM areas. Students who are not exposed to these fields of study early on suffer a disadvantage compared to those who enjoy early introduction to math, science, and computer technology.

In my own research on black men employed in predominantly white male-dominated occupations, virtually all of the black male engineers I spoke with shared that early exposure to STEM programs heavily influenced their career trajectories. Their stories indicate that an early introduction to these tech fields can help create a more diverse pipeline for companies to consider when making employment decisions. Unfortunately, educational trends seem to be heading in the opposite direction as public schools continue a downward slide towards racial resegregation and unequal access to resources.

If Google is serious about changing their numbers and they honestly are not where they want to be, it will be important for the company focus directly on proven strategies that are shown to work when trying to maximize racial and gender diversity. These things include practices that establish accountability for employment decisions but not diversity training or evaluations. It would be nice to see them succeed in this endeavor and perhaps become a model for other companies in Silicon Valley.

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