Beyond the Headlines: What We All Need to Learn from Tech’s Diversity Reports
Let’s start with a quick search on-line. Type in prompts like, “global competition for talent,” “talent-constrained economy,” the “struggle to access a qualified workforce.” You will find dozens of articles that talk about the myriad of factors that contribute to the challenge companies face worldwide to recruit and retain the talent they need. No surprise there. You can also go to almost any company’s website and find strong statements affirming diversity as a core business value, the advancement of which is critical to the organization’s ability to remain competitive. No surprise there either.
But the recent headlines revealing the lack of diversity in the tech world of Silicon Valley may surprise some, and stand as a contradiction to the realities of a talent-starved workforce and diversity as a proclaimed corporate value.
The deeper question is, why? Given the competition for a skilled workforce, why would any demographic as a potential source of talent be underutilized, especially in an industry that prides itself as, “a place where anyone with smarts, initiative and a great idea can make it?” We need to examine the details here. We need to take a deeper look at the elements of organizational culture that enables a lack of diversity to linger, go unaddressed, and continually undercut key business strategy.
Is the problem how we see the problem?
Many (not just in the tech industry and not just in the U.S.), will refer to what is known as “the pipeline problem” when discussing the challenges associated with recruiting and retaining a workforce that is diverse by gender, race and ethnicity. As Google’s official blog states,
“There are lots of reasons why technology companies like Google struggle to recruit and retain women and minorities. For example, women earn roughly 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics each make up under 10 percent of U.S. college grads and each collect fewer than 10 percent of degrees in CS majors. So we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in education.”
And as stated in an article entitled, Tech Industry’s Diversity Problem Starts in College and Earlier regarding the racial and ethnic diversity of those studying computer science at the graduate level,
“Just over half of the computer science master’s degrees granted last year went to foreign students …By the time you hit the Ph.D. level, Hispanic and black American students each make up less than 2% of the graduates.”
It is a good thing that companies like Google are now expending resources to expand access for women and those that are racially and ethnically diverse to build code skills, for example. But we can’t let good feelings stand as a substitute for our need to dig deeper. Why was the Silicon Valley disengaged and then initially resistant to releasing its diversity data? And what do the following comments posted on Google’s blog after the tech giant released its diversity data reveal about the problem with how we actually see the problem in the first place?
“Women earn 18% of computer science degrees – yet they hold 30% of the jobs at Google. Even though it’s miles from where Google wants to be – it’s still well above the sex split of computer science degrees.”
“How diverse is Google? Could it be that some minority groups just don’t gravitate to the skills that Google requires.”
The other bias
We need to look beyond the predominant narrative’s attempt to explain the lack of women and professionals of color, a narrative that is not just espoused in the tech industry. We also need to look beyond special support initiatives for underrepresented populations, and quite frankly we need to look beyond the overly used mantra that diversity is what organizations need to be competitive. A harder examination is required in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the root causes behind the challenge of recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the consequences of unconscious biases in the workplace, especially with the release in 2013 of the research findings from the Implicit Association Test (I.A.T.). That’s a good thing. But equally important is being more transparent about the other bias – what some call the “second-hand smoke” of the biases that are spoken and unspoken, and often times become entrenched in organizational culture.
History can’t be overlooked here either. The workplace has a legacy of exclusion that had, and continues to have real consequences. It is in this history that the misleading narrative about who’s qualified and who’s not, for example, simply based on identity was formulated.
Moving our examination beyond the tech industry to corporate America at large, where professionals of color make up only 11% of executive positions, we find a research-based article, the title of which speaks for itself: Cracking the Code that Stalls People of Color. The article discusses how professionals of color, given the limitations of a definition of a leader that is overwhelmingly based on white-male standards, ”find themselves at an immediate disadvantage in trying to look, sound, and act like a leader.” Coupling this reality with what a February, 2013 article in Diversity Journal defines as white males “unaware they have a culture that others must negotiate,” contributes to the formation of an organizational culture that essentially undercuts the values of a diverse workforce.
We can single out the Tech industry for narrow-minded selection criteria, for using quirky insider interview questions in the hiring process, and gender bias in job descriptions/advertisements and in assessing resumes. But the truth is that these types of exclusionary practices, often times couched in intentionally evasive language (“I feel he/she is just not the right fit”), can be found across multiple job sectors. The irony is companies that do not check biases in both the practices of their people and in the culture of their organizations, will face an ever shrinking talent pool with both men and women increasingly rejecting biased organizational standards that undermine a healthy work-life balance.
Strategies moving forward
We can choose to step away from the predominant narrative. We can choose to liberate our strategic thinking by refusing to accept the status quo, by looking globally across industries, and by intentionally snooping around, even in unusual places. We can revitalize our ability to address the challenges associated with recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. Here is a list of strategies worth consideration:
Scrutinize conventional thinking and practice
Fixing Google Gender Gap Shouldn’t Be So Hard suggests such approaches as looking more carefully at how jobs are defined, and broadening the talent pool by looking beyond the usual recruitment grounds. These may seem like basic strategies, but companies can get stuck approaching the recruiting process in a rote fashion, leading all too often to the accountability disclaimer in developing a diverse pool of candidates, “We’ve tried, but we just can’t find them.”
Diversify pathways to skills and talent development
Diversification is not just about numbers and demographics. Organizations need to think outside traditional models and strategies for skills and talent development. In doing so, an organization can attract the talent they need across a broad swath of diversity. Dramatically labeling the challenge as “skills are the new arms race,” Building a Smarter Workforce in Today’s Global Economy asserts that “deep skills come from a range of developmental experiences.” The report also shares research showing that high-impact learning organizations “are generating two-to-three times the financial performance of their peers — and they are doing it by creating a set of tools, content, and a culture that facilitates skills sharing and learning on a continuous basis.” The vibrancy associated with being part of this kind of work environment, this type of community of learners, is attractive and appealing across generations and other employee demographics.
Leverage the “branding value” of regular diversity and inclusion assessment
According to What Stops Women from Reaching the Top, “Women who are promoters of their organisations as a good place for women to work are three to four times more likely than detractors to believe that their companies’ leadership shows visible commitment to gender parity. Also, they are three or four times more likely to believe that their organisation has sought broad input on the root causes of gender inequality and has put real effort against this issue.” Seeking broad input requires moving beyond approaching diversity and inclusion initiatives as compliance, risk management, and about solving a problem. Companies need to uproot barriers to inclusion in their policies, procedures, and practices. They need to uproot barriers embedded in their organizational culture and expressed in the exclusionary perceptions and practices of their leaders and employees. This is the exact function of using regular diversity and inclusion assessment as business strategy.
Do something about the “pipeline problem”
Suggesting we need to look beyond the predominant narrative’s attempt to explain the lack of women and professionals of color is not to suggest that the pipeline problem doesn’t exist. But business leaders should do more than just identify this problem. They should study it. One, to gain a greater understanding of the root causes, and secondly to use their smart business instincts to discern what can be done to respond at the corporate level. Mentoring Makes a Difference to Doctoral, Postdoctoral Students breaks down the challenge of increasing STEM graduation rates of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, at both undergraduate and graduate levels. As the article points out, underrepresented students can face “daunting hurdles en route to their professional goals” including limited access, financial challenges, blatant biases, and a lack of role models and mentors that can support an accumulation of the knowledge of what it takes to succeed. Again history can’t be overlooked – in this case missing history. As the article states, “If you listen to the scientists who talk about the history of science, it usually goes back to the traditions of Europe; it’s the great scientists who are primarily white males …It seems as though the ownership of science has been talked about exclusively in terms of a discipline that was invented and owned, and pursued, by a majority culture.”
The truth is that many of the same “daunting hurdles” that both female students and students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds face in STEM education are all too often mirrored in the exclusionary practices that plague the workplace.
Turn the corner and read the writing on the wall
The reality of diversity today is this: we are a multi-generational coalition of purposeful players using our cultural intelligence and our diverse backgrounds, perspectives and talents to get the job done. There is proof of that all around. Just think about the diversity of folks that have influenced your world recently. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ronald Copeland, MD, Senior Vice President, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Kaiser Permanente. While I was doing some research to develop a training focused on cultural competency, I came across Copeland’s discussion of culturally competent health care. Take a minute to give a listen, and be inspired as I was to hear about “clinical excellence” that is defined by the use of technology and data to not only advance patient care, but to eliminate disparity.
Strive for greater diversity at the the “epicenter” of where technological disruption occurs
Underutilization is just plain sad, and it’s certainly not smart business. How many times do we have to hear about the growing influence of women as a driving economic force, or the richer decision-making that diverse teams bring to problem solving, especially when juxtaposed with the risks involved in relying on homogeneous groups?
Let’s go out on a limb for a minute and say that leveraging diversity is intrinsically linked to our economic survival. This is not stated to be overly dramatic. Going back to the tech world to support this point, let’s look for a minute at how the forward-thinkers at CODE 2040 frame the issue:
- STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs are the fastest-growing category of jobs in the United States, and 70% of those jobs involve computing.
- Computer science jobs command some of the highest starting salaries in the US: $77,000 per year — about twice the median household income of a Black or Latino family.
- The unemployment rate for STEM workers is lower than for all workers; the unemployment rate for African-Americans and Latinos is 3x the nationwide rate.
- Software developers are in demand: at the current rate we are graduating computer scientists, there will be 1MM software jobs unfilled by 2020.
- Fewer than 4% of Black and Latino students study computer science and only 1 in 14 technical employees in the tech hub of Silicon Valley is Black or Latino.
- The US will be majority-minority in the year 2040, and 42% of the country will be Black or Latino.
CODE2040’s conclusion: “We need Blacks and Latinos to enter the tech workforce at a greater rate, and to stay and succeed there as engineers, technologists, thought leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs.”
This make sense, good sense – good economic sense.
Here’s what an executive in the Silicon Valley told me just this month: he did not hesitate to state the consequences of following any business model that is built on continuing to “manage in the rear view mirror,” with “hallway decisions being made by a chosen few.” The individual I spoke with believes that those types of leaders will become obsolete, will stifle business, and their companies will become irrelevant. He works everyday to remove any remnants of “command and control” in his organization, and he works to build a “flattened” work environment where “your kids would actually want to work not because of nice amenities, but because it is an open and high-performing work community.” He used the word “community” again and again. So many more people today across generations and demographics want this to describe their place of employment.
There is no question that the global competition for skilled talent is pushing organizations to build workplaces that appeal to a broader swath of diversity. At the core of implementing successful strategies for recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, lies a need for both organizations and individuals to make the sometimes uncomfortable choice to intentionally step out of isolation and out of silos, and step away from business models that are out-of-touch with the needs of today’s workforce. The return on investment (ROI) just might be an ability to tap the creativity, innovation and loyalty of an engaged, connected and diverse workforce to actually move the needle on important business outcomes.