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How Silicon Valley is trying to fix its diversity problem

March 17, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
Almost two years after major tech firms began publicizing their diversity numbers, recent figures show that Silicon Valley employees are still overwhelmingly white and male. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the steps these companies are taking to address their race and gender problems, from software algorithms to education and recruitment initiatives.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Silicon Valley, the home of the California tech industry, has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. Almost two years after major companies, led by Google and Intel, started to publicize their diversity numbers, the ethnic and gender makeup of the industry’s work force remains almost the same.

Analysis of employees at the leading tech firms that report such figures reveals, on average, 71 percent are men, 29 percent are women, 60 percent identify as white, 23 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino, and 7 percent black.

So, what exactly is Silicon Valley doing to improve its diversity?

Hari Sreenivasan takes a look in the first of two stories.

JOELLE EMERSON, CEO, Paradigm: Raise your hand if you have heard of unconscious bias before?

HARI SREENIVASAN: The notion that hidden bias can be methodically stamped out of the workplace has become popular with tech companies across Silicon Valley.

JOELLE EMERSON: By managing unconscious bias, we make better decisions. So, unconscious bias acts as a significant barrier to objective, data-driven decision making.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That was the message being delivered by Joelle Emerson, a former sexual harassment litigator who now spends most of her time helping multibillion-dollar start-ups diversify their work forces.

JOELLE EMERSON: We think that if you can get this right early, you’re going to much more successfully, more organically grow as an inclusive company, rather than starting when you’re so far down the line.

If the word is associated with female, I want you to raise your right hand and say the word right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On this day, Emerson is conducting a workshop at Slack, a $2.8 billion start-up just named company of the year by “Inc.” magazine. Even though his company is still young, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield is still playing a little catchup.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD, CEO, Slack: We didn’t get started in the beginning, right? This company was co-founded by four white men. But it was something that became apparent as a priority to us when we were relatively small, you know, about 30 or 40 people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Known for its workplace communication app, Slack is regarded as one of the hottest and fastest growing tech start-ups.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: We are growing incredibly quickly. I mean, we have to do a lot of hiring, which means that there’s a lot of positions that need to get filled. Every week, there’s new people starting. Every week, there’s open roles.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And when there’s rapid growth, a natural inclination is to recruit from familiar networks.

Senior engineer Erica Baker says that’s at the core of tech’s diversity problem.

ERICA BAKER, Engineer, Slack: There’s a lot of focus put on, like, hiring people you know, who you’re comfortable with or whatever. And a lot of people who get into Silicon Valley come from backgrounds that are predominantly white, and so they hire the people that they know, who are predominantly white, and it’s cyclical. It will take someone, like, stopping that cycle purposefully to fix it.

ANNE TOTH, VP of People & Policy, Slack: We’re going to be hiring a lot of people next year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Slack’s vice president for people and policy, Anne Toth, says she’s working hard to break that cycle.

ANNE TOTH: One of the things I’m trying to do here, early stage, is build the type of tools from the outset that allow us to look at the data in real time and make adjustments as we go. Are we promoting women and people of color at the same rate? Are we retaining them at the same rate? Are we paying them equitably? Are they as engaged as other employees across the board?

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the day we visited, Toth and diversity consultant Joelle Emerson were reviewing questions with a group of hiring managers

JOELLE EMERSON: Where we often go wrong is that we ask questions that produce answers that cannot be objectively evaluated, that almost force us to draw on unconscious biases, on subjectivity, on our own beliefs about the world to evaluate the candidate’s answer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The goal, to eliminate any potential bias that might unfairly favor one type of applicant over another.

WOMAN: What do you do for fun? What do you think of that question?

WOMAN: We want to know more about who you are, not just what you do for work.

JOELLE EMERSON: We don’t want to take the humanity out of this process, but it really isn’t relevant to your ability to do work here, what you do for fun. And what if what you do for fun is different than what the person who happens to be interviewing you does for fun, that can be really challenging. What if my answer is, I don’t have a whole lot of time for a lot of fun, I have two kids right now that are infants, and mostly my spare time is spent taking care of them?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite these efforts, Slack’s diversity numbers are still not dramatically different from the industry. Seventy percent of its employees are white, and 61 percent are men.

But CEO Stewart Butterfield says there are some encouraging trends.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Forty-one percent of employees at Slack report to a woman; 45 percent of the managers and executives are women. So, that’s definitely better than the industry average.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Erica Baker, an African-American engineer, diversity is about race, as well as gender.

ERICA BAKER: Right now, it seems like, in the industry, that diversity is code for hire more women. That is what diversity has become. And it’s not great, because the demographics of the industry, usually, it skews to more white women.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Baker says she is encouraged by the direction Slack is heading. Seven percent of the company’s engineers are African-American. Compare that with the industry average of 1 percent to 2 percent.

To change the demographics of an industry takes time, and one long-term effort involves encouraging more women and people of color to study engineering. Many companies are now sponsoring training for high school and college students like this code camp hosted by the mobile payment firm Square.

JACK DORSEY, CEO, Square: One of the things I have always loved about programming and computer science is that you can truly build something from scratch.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While CEO Jack Dorsey has not yet publicized square’s diversity figures, his executive team includes several women in key roles, like chief financial officer and head of engineering.

VANESSA SLAVICH, Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Square: At Square, we started at the top. So, our board of directors is really diverse. They’re driving the company. You move down to our executive team, four out nine of the people who report to Jack are CEO-quality women who are running a majority of the company.

And so, if we can prioritize from the top, from our board to the executive team, inevitably, it will trickle down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vanessa Slavich, diversity lead at Square, says the company is constantly on the lookout for tools that will help widen the pool of prospective employees.

VANESSA SLAVICH: So, here, we have a job description for our data scientist team.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One such tool is Textio. The software uses a form of artificial intelligence to detect bias in the job descriptions.

VANESSA SLAVICH: This is the before copy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On a scale of one to 100, it scores 47. Phrases like rapidly growing are regarded as inclusive, builds relationships feminine, and words like relentlessly masculine. Once all the changes are made, the newly revised job description scores a 95.

VANESSA SLAVICH: We did a small anonymous test with our job descriptions before and after, and they doubled in applications for both men and women.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While such efforts can widen the pool of candidates, Slack’s Erica Baker says real, lasting change will require a cultural shift in the workplace, taking people beyond their comfort zones.

ERICA BAKER: People should know that you’re going to feel weird about talking about race. Just like sit with it and, like, then move past it. But it’s going to get uncomfortable. And I think people shy away from talking about those sorts of things because it is uncomfortable.

But I think that we need to get to the uncomfortable spaces to make good progress.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Progress will likely take time, especially with older and larger companies.

In our next story, we visit Google to see how the tech giant is trying to make its culture more inclusive.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Part two of Hari’s look at diversity in Silicon Valley airs tomorrow on “PBS NewsHour Weekend.”

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