Featured image by Christina Twu.
Diversity in technology was a hot topic at SXSW Interactive 2016. The urgency around the need for diversity has resulted in changes at some pretty influential tech companies, from the ground to C-Level executive offices.
Lack of diversity and its consequences in big tech made major headlines this past year — from Emily Chang of Bloomberg News revealing Sequoia CEO Michael Moritz’s ridiculous excuse for not hiring and partnering with women, to the excruciating moment when Google released a facial recognition app that misidentified two African Americans as gorillas.
As our guy Kentaro Toyama imparts in “Geek Heresy,” new technology platforms only amplify what already is. In this case, it’s good old-fashioned institutional racism and sexism.
The good news is, recent controversy has forced major industry leaders to ask tough questions about unconscious bias in hiring, management and organizational culture. It’s also inspired companies like Pinterest, Facebook, Yelp, and Cisco to start digging into why companies aren’t attracting and retaining diverse talent, and to identify persistent institutional barriers to opportunities.
Plenty of research backs diversity as a major creative advantage for business and product development. Yet according to a 2014 USA Today report, only about half of black and Latino graduates from top computer science and engineering programs are being hired by major tech companies.
Five years from now, digital companies are projected to reflect $19 trillion of the U.S. economy, as CEO Shari Slate, chief inclusion and collaboration officer at Cisco, noted in a SXSW panel. This industry is growing in tandem with the census estimate that the U.S. population will be comprised primarily of ethnic and racial minorities by 2042.
Not only do we have a diversity problem, we have a serious equity problem for a swiftly diversifying country and underrepresented groups within it — especially those most impacted by economic racism and gender inequity. (And this is without factoring in who our next potentially scary president may be).
Here are a few SXSW takeaways on diversity and inclusion efforts in progress — straight from the women (and one white male investor) who are running and supporting them:
1. Be aware of unconscious bias.
“We’re well-intentioned people, and unconscious bias is really the seedy underbelly of how we make decisions,” says Shari Slate, who leads diversity and inclusion efforts at Cisco.
As she covered in her Friday SXSW session, “Diversity and Tech: Breaking Down Unconscious Bias” with investor Adam Quinton, the first step in grappling with unconscious bias — the blind tendency to prejudge or favor certain people or groups — is acknowledging that it exists. We all have it by virtue of how our brains function.
Quinton says that humans essentially have two parts of their brain — one reflective and one that is on autopilot, what he calls the “hidden brain.” Brain research tells us that we can only process about 50 bits of information in the reflective part of the brain — the part that helps us synthesize and communicate our world view and opinions, says Quinton. The autopilot part of the brain holds accumulated experiences.
The disconnect of two different simultaneous thoughts in the reflective and autopilot parts of the brain can lead to contradictory thinking.
In other words, even if you consciously believe that all people should be treated equally, you are still very susceptible to unconsciously thinking the opposite. This tends to happen, says Quinton, when people have time constraints, receive ambiguous or incomplete information, and/or when their mental function is compromised (from sleep deprivation, inebriation, stress, brain overload, etc.).
New awareness of our personal bias can be a shock, as Quinton’s story can attest.
“I have a black brother, and I like to think that I’m a very objective and fair person, and I’ve got no racial prejudice,” said Quinton, who is white and told the audience at Austin Convention Center on Friday he was very close to his brother and had worked for several years in Asia.
However, when he took the Implicit-Association Test from Harvard’s Project Implicit measuring unconscious racial preference bias, his test results indicated a moderate white preference over other races.
You could think of this unconscious preference as a neurological blind spot and that much of it is beyond our control. But “just because it’s unconscious doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to resolve it,” Slate stressed. “The way to do that is to consistently and routinely interrupt it,” which will inevitably cause discomfort.
Slate added that many well-meaning people with unconscious bias like to be around others they are comfortable with and similar to them. However, this comfort and familiarity doesn’t disrupt unconscious bias.
Research supports that ensuring employees build relationships with people who have experiences very different from their own can help break the pattern, explained Quinton. He recommended implementing company systems that ensure employees regularly interact with staff who have experiences very different from their own.
For more about unconscious bias, check out the 2014 book, “Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgements in Our Daily Lives” and Facebook’s free bias management training.
2. Build buy-in and allies.
During a Saturday SXSW panel called “Why Diversity Can’t Be Built in a Day,” four industry leaders from across the board emphasized the necessity of getting buy-in and building strong allies within their companies to ensure the success of diversity and inclusion work. Leading the panel was Dominique DeGuzman, software engineer at Twilio; facilitator Joelle Emerson, founder/CEO of diversity consulting group PARADIGM; Abby Maldonado, diversity programs specialist at Pinterest; and Rachel Williams, head of diversity and inclusion at Yelp.
Maldonado believes that diversity and inclusion is a full-time job, and involves ensuring the mechanisms are in place for leadership to take action on diversity and recruitment initiatives.
“The CEO and the leadership team absolutely have to be 100 percent on board or all of those [diversity and inclusion initiatives] will fail,” she says.
DeGuzman is a software engineer and the co-chair of diversity and inclusion at Twilio. She calls the diversity and inclusion work at her company “Skittles,” and has helped build company allies for minority-led employee resource groups (ERGs), including black ERGs and Family Nest (FN), an ERG of primary caregivers specifically focused on making sure the company is mindful of cultural norms that might make it more difficult for employees raising kids to participate, such as scheduling important meetings in the evening.
She and other diversity and inclusion co-chairs at Twilio document their work by filming interviews from ERG participants expressing the importance of their peer groups, and showing them as a short video for new hires during the first week of orientation.
This included her new manager, who was initially worried DeGuzman was spending too much of her work time leading diversity efforts instead of performing her primary role as an engineer.
After watching the video, DeGuzman remembers her manager had a breakthrough, and quoted what he told her:
“I realized, ‘I am really privileged to be worried that you want to do these things because I can look around the room and see there’s a lot of other straight white guys in the room, but I can only imagine how you would feel and why you would want to advocate for more people to be not just straight men in the room.’”
Getting that level of near-empathy and buy-in just from watching a two-minute video was meaningful to DeGuzman. Getting influencers such as her manager to buy in gave her an opportunity to take her work to spaces that would not otherwise be accessible, she said.
Not only should the critical work of diversity and inclusion be a collective, companywide effort, those already most impacted by inequities in the workplace shouldn’t be the ones carrying the bulk of the struggle.
“Women and minorities already have to work harder in their normal work to justify their presence, and then to have the additional burden of advocacy … in representing the companies in marketing, in recruiting, in interviewing, in volunteering with community efforts and organizations: its a lot,” Pinterest’s Tracy Chou said in her SXSW talk, “Why We’re Still Talking About Diversity.”
“We need new allies to champion the causes of women, and we need white and Asian allies to help forefront the issues of underrepresented minorities.”
3. Raise the bar: rethink the hiring process and hiring pools.
Remember when Bloomberg’s Emily Chang inquired into Sequoia CEO Mike Moritz’s lack of women leadership at his firm, and he said this?
“Oh, we look very hard. In fact we just hired a young woman from Stanford who’s every bit as good as her peers, and if there are more like her, we’ll hire them. What we’re not prepared to do is lower our standards.”
Ironically, before he was the Sequoia CEO, Moritz was operating outside of the conventional talent pools tech companies recruit from.
“Moritz himself doesn’t have a degree in the sciences. He was a history major. And he worked as a journalist before he became an investor,” Pinterest’s Tracy Chou reminded us at her Saturday talk.
A popular perception and myth is that there’s not enough talent within the conventional computer science pools, and that companies have to lower the bar to find talent.
“Semantics out of the way, the idea that hiring more women inherently means lowering standards is sexist. The idea that hiring more minorities inherently means lowering standards is racist,” said Chou.
As CODE2040 CEO Laura Weidemen Powers put aptly in a Medium post last month: “Hiring people of color is not charity work and a belief that diversity is giving back to me smacks of paternalism.”
Chou reminds us of a more compelling reason companies should be looking outside the usual places for talent from underrepresented groups: “Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not.”
Talent pools at popular recruitment beds like MIT and Stanford are overfished, said Chou. (Though it’s worth mentioning that half of black and Latino graduates from top computer science schools don’t get hired by big tech companies).
“When hiring managers complain that they can’t find female or underrepresented minority candidates, it often means they’re looking in the wrong places or looking for the wrong things.”
But what’s more, Chou added, “Whether or not someone has a CS degree has little bearing on how well they’ll do the job.”
Pinterest’s Diversity Programs Specialist, Abby Maldonado, recommends “seeing where your candidates fall out and what that might be, and then honing in on that specific area.”
For them it was at the top of the funnel, so sourcing was the focus, and shifting strategy to recruit at more diverse campuses and events was the solution. They now have slightly more demographic diversity since last fall, when Maldonado and her colleagues began adjusting sourcing pools.
If young, diverse talent isn’t going to Silicon Valley, then Yelp figures it should bring the valley to them. It’s something that Rachel Williams, head of diversity and inclusion at Yelp calls “reverse recruitment.” Yelp flies students in from “down South, from back East, who have no idea what it’s like to even work in tech, what Silicon Valley really looks like.”
Along with exposing these students to the possibility of working for the company, and having them meet with Yelp employees and executives,“it exposes our employees to … be aware that there are black engineers out there, here’s what they look like, and … they’re going to be starting in fall of 2016.” Williams calls it a “two-fold education.”
Once candidate applicant pools have expanded to reflect broader diversity, there is the question of selection and interview process — a great place to apply any lessons learned from tracking unconscious bias within your organization.
In all parts of the process, whether it’s sourcing, how you take and review applications, conduct interviews, or select and hire candidates, Chou offers some excellent food for thought:
“When we consider candidates and teammates, they’re multidimensional human beings: they’re stronger in some characteristics, weaker in others, and are also described by experiential, cognitive, personal and interpersonal characteristics that aren’t strong or weak, but just are.”
In other words, keep an open mind, and account for any cultural supremacy and bias in the recruiting and hiring process with the whole package of a potential hire in mind.