After years of playing down the problem, technology companies like Google,Facebook and Apple now say they’re serious about improving the gender and ethnic diversity of their work forces and corporate boards. Recent data from those companies and others like them confirm what everyone has long known: Most of their employees are white and Asian men. Among technical employees, few are women, and even fewer are Latino or African-American.
Tech companies should care about these numbers. Many studies show that companies with gender and ethnic diversity tend to be more creative andmore profitable, because varied perspectives help them design products and services that appeal to a diverse, worldwide audience.
The companies say they’re starting to address the problem by acknowledging it. Google, for instance, is training managers to be more aware of hidden biases, so they don’t, for instance, give undeservedly lower performance evaluations to women. Facebook is working with professional associations and other nonprofit groups to get more girls and minority children interested in science and technology. A big issue facing the industry is the percentage of female computer science students at universities. That number has fallen in the last 20 years, even as the percentage of women in fields like biology and chemistry has risen.
Still, there are approaches that could help:
• Not all tech industry employees are engineers and programmers. The companies employ large numbers of people who manage projects, market services and design products. Many of these jobs do not require a computer science or an engineering degree. But the proportion of women and minorities in these types of jobs is not much better than the proportion in technical positions. Companies should make efforts to hire a more diverse group of workers — including more liberal arts graduates — for nontechnical jobs, according to Vivek Wadhwa, who has written a book about women in the technology industry.
• Top technology companies hire a lot of graduates from elite universities like Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Their recruitment efforts should include a broader array of colleges, especially those that enroll a lot of women in technical fields.
Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for example, says his institution produces many women and minority graduates in science and engineering disciplines. Many find jobs with federal government agencies and East Coast technology companies, because the university has strong relationships with those employers. But it has far fewer contacts with companies in Silicon Valley.
• Companies should open up the initial interviewing process. Heidi Roizen, a venture capitalist, says she asks executives at companies she invests in whether they have interviewed any women for openings. Many said they had not even thought about doing so until she prompted them, primarily because they tend to hire friends and acquaintances.
Other kinds of businesses have used a similar approach. The National Football League, for example, has the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach or general manager opening.
• Creating a welcoming culture, which is often easier said than done, would help these companies retain employees who get in the door. A 2011 report by the Census Bureau found that women science and engineering graduates were much less likely to be employed in those fields then men with the same degrees. A 2008 report published by the Harvard Business Review found that women quit high tech jobs at twice the rate of men. Among the most frequently cited reasons women gave for leaving, it said, were extreme pressure and a hostile culture.
There is a lot that the education system and the government need to do to get more women and minorities interested in science and technology. But the technology industry can start tackling its diversity problem right now.