In 2017, the technology industry faced a humiliating reality that took the shine off efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive future.
Since 2014, major tech companies have released diversity reports showing the industry’s demographic lopsidedness in favor of white men. The percentages of women and minorities in tech are low, and the percentages in technical roles are even lower, often failing to crack 30 percent.
But colorful pie charts with sad numbers aren’t where it stops. We’re coming to the end of a bruising year in which scandal after scandal seemed to fly in the face of glossy efforts to create a diverse and inclusive future for the tech industry.
“If you build a brand on culture and it’s revealed that your culture is toxic, you really do stand to take a hit,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of diversity-focused consulting firm ReadySet.
And so 2017 is leaving behind a pretty crummy aftertaste.
In February, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a post about her experience working at Uber, which included getting propositioned by a manager.
A few months later, venture capitalists including called himself a creep.and were outed as sexual harassers — and even admitted to using their positions to take advantage of women founders. In a Medium post, McClure
Fast-forward to August, when a Google employee wrote a 10-page memocriticizing diversity efforts in tech, going as far as to say that low numbers of women in tech aren’t the result of rampant sexism, but biology.
Last month, tech blogger and evangelistresponded to sexual harassment allegations with a lengthy blog post disputing the idea that sexual harassment can take place without a power imbalance.
Tech making an effort
None of this is a good look for a powerful industry that’s supposed to unlock humanity’s future. And if anything, it’s a frustrating experience running counter to what seems like significant efforts to change.
In 2015, Intel pledged to launch a broad scope of partnerships and programs to improve diversity. CEO Brian Krzanich even tied executive compensation to hitting diversity goals. That year, too, Facebook introduced the Diverse Slate Approach, which “sets the expectation that hiring managers will consider candidates from underrepresented backgrounds when interviewing for an open position.” In June 2016, Google gave tech education nonprofits a $2.8 million space in its New York City office. Twitter works with the group Girls Who Code.
Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft all have employee resource groups spanning race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual or gender orientation, veteran status and age. Google has a coaching program just for black and Hispanic Googlers. Many of those same companies offer training on unconscious bias to make employees and managers aware of the ways they might be dismissing, discounting or discriminating against others who might not look like they do, even without meaning to.
We’ve seen other companies like Netflix, Twitter and Facebook extend their parental leave policies. IBM will pay for new mothers to ship their breast milk home if they have to travel. Accenture says you don’t have to travel at all for a year, if you’ve got a recent arrival, whether biological or adopted.
And in 2016, the release of diversity reports came side by side with news that many of those big tech companies, including Facebook and Apple, had reached pay equity in the US. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has regularly talked about putting $3 million toward closing the gender pay gap after women at the company said they weren’t getting paid the same as men.
A broader shift
So what’s happening?
“2017 was about peeling back the veil on a lot of really complicated and difficult issues, not just in tech but in society at large,” Hutchinson said.
She thinks we’re at a crossroads this year — we either acknowledge that prejudice never stopped being prevalent or brush it all back under the rug.
We’re certainly seeing signs of the former, especially outside tech. Hollywood figures like Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein have been publicly accused of sexual harassment and assault — Spacey lost his Netflix show “House of Cards,” and Weinstein’s been booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There’s a Google Doc referred to as the “shitty men in media” list circulating, a crowdsourced repository of who to watch out for. And sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill have led to the departure of at least one representative.
Tech is just part of what’s going on.
Catherine Ashcraft, director of research at the National Center for Women in Information and Technology (NCWIT), an organization that works with companies on strategic ways to address diversity, said it’s impossible to control everyone inside a company, obviously. One toxic person doesn’t have to represent the entire company, but how management deals with such things is vital.