In the past several years, the tech industry seems to have tried to put more effort into promoting and increasing diversity. But are those initiatives actually working? In many aspects, it seems that the answer is no; things aren’t actually getting any better.
According to a 2018 report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 57 percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of women, but only 26 percent of technology-related positions are held by women. According to another report from consulting firm McKinsey and Company, the situation is worse for women of color, with black, Latina, and Native American women only making up 4 percent of roles in the computing workforce — almost none of which are senior leadership roles — despite making up 16 percent of the general population.
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And it’s not just larger, established companies that are struggling to be more diverse. Silicon Valley Bank’s Women in Technology Leadership 2019 report confirms the issue persists in startups too. It found that only 56 percent of startups have at least one woman in an executive position, while only 40 percent have at least one woman on their board of directors. “For every inclusive start-up, there’s one that’s the exact opposite. It will take time, effort and determination to make the shift permanent,” said Laura Baldwin, president of media company O’Reilly.
On March 6, at a hearing in a Congressional subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce, Mark Luckie, a digital media strategist and former manager at Facebook and Twitter, said a common explanation for this lack of diversity is the pipeline — that not enough women and people of color have tech-related degrees. But this isn’t true. There are still more women and people of color graduating than being hired, he explained. “There is a common refrain in Silicon Valley: ‘We can’t lower the bar.’ This term is widely understood to infer that black, latinx, and women candidates are less qualified. Their hiring would be a token, putting them over more qualified white or Asian male candidates, who are actually often equally or sometimes less qualified,” Luckie said.
When women or people of color are hired, they often face unwelcoming environments. A Harvard Business Review survey found that half of all diverse — meaning women, racial or ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ — employees experience bias in their day-to-day work experience. And as a result of daily bias, 52 percent of women are leaving their jobs, according to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation. Their reasons for leaving include “hostile macho cultures,” isolation, and difficulty with embodying leadership attributes, the report stated. According to McKinsey and Company’s report, the number of women in computing has actually decreased over the last 25 years.
Frustrations at work may also be combining with opportunities or situations that occur in their personal lives, making it more likely that women choose to leave their tech careers behind. “In my observations, when women lose opportunities, they actually lose time to build accumulative advantage,” said Urvashi Tyagi, vice president of engineering at American Express. “Over the years, they start to fall behind and don’t see a path to reach their potential. In the first decade of their careers, when a demanding personal circumstance occurs – like the birth of a child, challenging family and relationship dynamics, or the loss of a job – women may be on the edge, ready to scale back or drop out of the workforce.”
Tyagi has noticed an increase in the amount of female students when recruiting for tech roles at college campuses. But this progress in the pipeline is negated if those women end up leaving their careers. “This obviously erases some of the progress the industry has made and reduces the pool of female engineers in mid-career and leadership roles.”
Despite reports like these, some within the industry are seeing change. Elizabeth Ferrao, co-founder of the New York City chapter of Women Who Code, said that while she’s not sure if the numbers back up the fact that there is change, in the past few years she has seen more of an awareness on leadership’s part.
“I’ve seen a cognizance of leadership to recognize whether your managers are being reflected amongst your employees and those ethnicities are there and those genders are there. So I think there’s definitely an increased cognizance of it,” Ferrao said.
O’Reilly’s Baldwin has also noticed some positive changes within the industry, but admits that there’s still a lot of work to be done, even within her company. “Even at O’Reilly we have a long way to go regarding our own hiring processes. We do our best to institutionalize our approach toward diversity and inclusion but we have yet to achieve what I would call ‘success.’”
Recognizing that there is still work to be done within your organization can help you get started on making changes from within.
A few things Baldwin still believes need work in the tech industry include getting more women and minorities on boards of directors and ensuring equal pay. “Companies really need to try and make diversity a part of their culture from the top down, and then diverse hires will come more naturally as well,” she said.
Why is diversity important?
The impact of not having different backgrounds represented in the tech industry will have lasting impacts on our society.
The negative effects of technology bias already are being seen. For example, most facial recognition software can almost perfectly identity white faces, but can’t consistently identify people with darker skin tones. This is because those algorithms are trained on data that features primarily white faces.
The consequences of this bias are huge when these systems are used by entities such as hiring managers, insurance companies, or police departments, just to name a few, explained Joy Buolamwini, graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab, in a TED Talk she gave about bias in facial recognition algorithms. “We’ve seen that algorithmic bias doesn’t always lead to fair outcomes.”
She believes that fixing these biases starts with the people that are writing code. “What can we do about it? Well, we can start thinking about how we create more inclusive code and employ inclusive coding practices. It really starts with people.”
She recommends teams be comprised of diverse individuals that can check each other’s blind spots. She also believes that teams should look at their development practices to ensure that they are developing fair systems. “We’ve used tools of computational creation to unlock immense wealth. We now have the opportunity to unlock even greater equality if we make social change a priority and not an afterthought,” Buolamwini said.
In addition to the effect on product development, a lack of diversity can really help cybercriminals out. James Slaby, director of cyber protection at cybersecurity company Acronis, listed just a few of the reasons that cybersecurity teams need to be more representative.
First, there is a shortage of qualified cybersecurity experts, in part due to competition from government agencies, service providers, vendors, and the criminal sector. When competing with all of these different groups for talent, organizations should be trying to cast as wide a net as possible when hiring.
Second, customized malware attacks are one of the most common phishing attacks. Having a team that is as diverse as possible can help defend against those. For example, a female hacker might be able to more effectively create a phishing email that uses a women’s issue as the hook. According to Slaby, the same is true of other racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual preference, or other groups.
“Cyber criminals are always looking for the weakest link in their targets, and now have the same tools used by corporate marketers to measure and analyze the success rate of various tactics,” said Slaby. “If there is a blind spot in your security team due to its homogeneity (e.g., it’s all straight, white, Christian males), the bad guys will find it. Diverse backgrounds and viewpoints offer a better defense against a variety of social-engineering attacks. It doesn’t literally take a thief to catch a thief in the cyber security world, but the ability to think like your attacker is a huge plus, so a diverse team is more likely to be able to counter a multiplicity of psychological tactics.”
Another important step in reducing and eliminating unconscious bias is to regularly educate and train employees. “Unconscious bias training should become an extension of the yearly compliance-driven trainings that are mandatory in many companies,” said Amercian Express’ Tyagi.
Change the way you write your job postings to attract more diverse candidates
According to job hiring site, Monster, the way a job description is written can influence who is going to apply. For example, women tend to only apply to a job when they feel 100 percent qualified. If they see a posting where they only meet 75 percent of the qualifications, they may not apply for the position, Monster explained in a post.
Monster recommends only listing the absolute “must-haves” on the list of requirements, rather than stuffing the description with skills that aren’t necessary for the job.
The company also recommends branding your organization as a more diverse one. “Whether it’s your career site, social channels, or how you present yourself at industry events, you want to position your company as being as diverse as possible, and highlight the strength of your diverse workforce,” the company wrote.
Tyagi recommends that rather than showcasing a geeky company culture and cool technologies, companies should focus on the problems they are trying to solve and the impact it has on helping people around the world. “Connecting the existence of a company to the value it creates for the customers, the community, and the society at large, makes an organization more attractive to women technologists.”
Tyagi also believes that companies need to ensure that their leadership roles are filled with more diverse talent, which will in turn attract more diverse candidates. O’Reilly’s Baldwin agrees, saying: “Companies really need to try and make diversity a part of their culture from the top down, and then diverse hires will come more naturally as well.”
Another thing that companies can do to improve hiring practices is to have leaders “regularly educate themselves, capture diversity KPIs and monitor progress, to continuously learn and evolve in becoming a more inclusive space for all,” Tyagi explained.
Baldwin recommends that organizations carefully consider the wording of job postings and ask themselves if there are certain words that are associated with a certain gender.
Professional organizations can lift you up when the industry doesn’t
Joining a professional organization, whether internal or external to your company, can be highly beneficial to under-represented minorities (URMs).
Elizabeth Ferrao, co-founder of the New York City chapter of Women Who Code, gave a talk at a diversity luncheon at O’Reilly’s Software Architecture conference in New York City in February, where she noted that some benefits of joining a group within your organization include an attachment to a strong internal organization, the potential for introductions to leadership, network effects, and personal brand growth. Joining an external group has similar benefits, but the network and connections will be tied to other organizations, rather than their own.
Along with Estella Madison Gonzalez, Ferrao co-founded the New York chapter five years ago. The original network was started in San Francisco and had going strong for a few years before the New York chapter formed, but now the NYC chapter has actually surpassed that original network, in terms of membership.
American Express’ Tyagi believes that companies should sponsor and promote employee participation in these types of organizations.
At American Express, for example, they have a Women in Technology (WIT) community that organizes local events and partners with diversity organizations, such as the Helen Keller National Center, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and AnitaB.org. According to Tyagi, WIT also organizes internal events, such as Sip & Chat roundtables, cluster mentoring, and a development series that engages diverse colleagues and helps them grow professionally.
Getting involved with an organization — whether external or internal — can help you build up your network. “I think spending your free time on projects on groups like this — like Women Who Code and Girls Develop It — are really great ways to start that network,” said Ferrao. “To meet the people who will lift you up in a couple of years. And realize that it takes time, it takes effort. And you have to go out of your way and out of your comfort zone. But I do think that there is a pretty large reward for it.”
Having a network of similar people will ensure that there are people around you who will lift you up when things are rough, Ferrao explained.
Conferences can help, too
In addition to joining professional organizations, conferences can be a great way for members of under-represented groups to further their tech career. According to O’Reilly’s Baldwin, conferences are “a natural place to present different approaches, viewpoints and experiences. They are a place where people gather, to learn from each other and share stories.”
But if those conferences aren’t a real place for inclusion, those perspectives will be biased, Baldwin explained. For example, O’Reilly does a number of things at their conferences to be more inclusive, including encouraging speaking proposals from under-represented minorities and planning a diverse speaker lineup, offering support and travel expenses for those speakers, offering a Diversity and Inclusion scholarship program for at least 10 URMs, offering pronoun ribbons and encouraging all attendees to use them to normalize the sharing of pronouns, designating all-gender restrooms, and setting aside religious observance rooms, among other things. “Most importantly, while the entire organization is behind our efforts, we have dedicated one employee who is assigned to owning our inclusion and diversity programs. Suzanne Axtell has worked tirelessly to hold O’Reilly to the best possible standard and the quality of her effort has made a significant difference for us, the industry as a whole and for our conference attendees,” Baldwin explained.
Unfortunately, URMs are often hesitant to ask their companies to send them to conferences. Baldwin recommends that organizations invest in sending their under-represented employees to conferences and take the burden of asking permission off of those employees.
“Communities gather at conferences, and having URMs more visible in these communities supports URMs as experts and active participants. It can also help reduce a sense of isolation some URMs experience, particularly if they’re the only member of an under-representedgroup at their company or on their team,” Baldwin said.