Diversity And The CTO

How can we look to bridge the diversity gap at top tech companies?


A lack of diversity has long been a problem in Silicon Valley, and it is one that has increasingly come to the fore as people like President Barack Obama's Chief Adviser on Technology Policies, Megan Smith, highlight the issue. The larger tech companies have made a lot of noise about rectifying the situation, but little appears to have actually been done. Women make up approximately 40% of the total global workforce, yet they are a minority in technology roles, constituting just 20% of the IT industry. Women held 28.7% of the roles at Google in 2014 according to the firm’s diversity stats, 28.8% at Facebook, and 38.1% at LinkedIn. Just 15% – 17% of the technical roles at these organizations are filled by women. And it is not just in terms of gender that there is a gaping disparity. Of the overall U.S. workforce at the same three firms, 91% are white and Asian, whilst just 3% are hispanic and 2% are black.

For the CTO, increasing diversity has some clear advantages. Research from both the Kellogg and Sloan Schools suggest that cognitively diverse teams perform better on hard problems. Racial diversity and gender balance leads to improved performance, with a breadth of personalities and experiences able to drive a wider ranger of different ideas that can help to drive innovation. It is vital that the CTO realise these benefits by examining the causes and developing strategies that overcome them.

The causes are many. There is a lack of exposure to technology jobs and entrepreneurship among many Americans, especially African Americans, Latinos and women. There are many projects out there that aim to solve this problem, such as Code For America, that have shown some degree of success. However, attempts to point the finger of blame early down the chain at educators are not necessarily rooted in fact. Recent stats suggest that an equal number of high school girls and boys participate in STEM electives, and at Stanford and Berkeley, 50% of the introductory computer science students are women. In Harvard’s graduating computer science class, 41% of the students are women. Companies may well try to blame their lack of diversity on flaws in the pipeline, but the best evidence suggests that it is actually providing an ample number of candidates for them to choose from.

If companies are missing out on employing those that are graduating in technology subjects, they are likely to fuel the ever-increasing skills gap. Research from Gartner found that 85% of Fortune 500 enterprises would not be able to effectively exploit data this year due to the skills gap in analytics, and there are currently half a million job openings in tech that are unfilled because candidates are ‘not sufficiently qualified’.

On the face of it, jobs in the tech industry should be extremely attractive to women - offering both flexibility and a good salary. However, it could be that the stereotype of the industry as a boy’s club is self-perpetuating and puts them off. One of the main reasons that some women and minority groups are reluctant may also be due to the lack of leadership positions seemingly available to them and the apparent difficulties of achieving proper career progression. For example, at Google just 16% of leadership roles are filled by women, while 4% are held by black people.

However, such reasoning could well be just be a way of avoiding a difficult truth. Discrimination is prevalent in the tech industry. In one study of women of color in science, conducted at UC Hastings College of Law, 100% of the sixty women scientists interviewed said that they had experienced gender and racial bias. Such problems are hard-set, and there may be no way around this for the CTO without enforcing a complete culture change, with ‘re-education’, or even serious penalties, for those who indicate prejudice. It will also require heavy investment, however, the strong finances of companies that do embrace diversity show the ROI is certainly there.

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