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Silicon Valley’s diversity problem goes beyond hiring practices

Deep-rooted issues in tech industry involve views on race and gender that can make work difficult for some employees

When Erin Lodi joined what became the Kindle division at Amazon, she knew she would be one of few women on the team. That often comes with the territory of working for a tech company. What she didn’t expect during her tenure with the Seattle-based giant was just how much she would have to measure not only her words but also her demeanor in daily interactions with her male counterparts.

“When there were heated discussions, I got just as passionate as the next guy,” she said. “There was no difference in the way I presented an idea compared to another man in the meeting. It was acceptable for him to be heated and passionate. But if I did the exact same thing, there was this ‘Why are you being so emotional?’ response.” As a result, “I was always trying to figure out who’s succeeding in this [tech] world without coming off as either a bitch or someone you can walk all over.”

As tech leaders flock to Austin for this week’s annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival, workplace diversity advocates hope to shine a spotlight on the industry’s hiring efforts, which remain abysmal. At Twitter, only 10 percent of tech jobs in its global workforce belong to women. Among its U.S. employees, just 4 percent of those lucrative positions are filled by black or Latino people. The numbers aren’t much different at places like Facebook, Google and Yahoo. Even Apple, which can point to above-average diversity, still counts just 20 percent of its tech hires as female, and black or Latino workers make up only 13 percent.

Public awareness of this disparity has been growing since these and many other tech firms — under pressure from diversity advocates — began releasing employee data last summer. Promises to do better are being followed up with financial commitments. In January, Intel announced a $300 million five-year effort to increase diversity. Apple, at its recent iWatch launch, announced a multiyear $50 million partnership with nonprofits aimed at identifying and supporting women and minorities pursuing computer science majors. Since 2012, Google has offered college scholarships to high school and undergraduate female, black, Latino and Native American students interested in computer science or engineering degrees.

Simply expanding the hiring pool, however, doesn’t address the daily challenges faced by women and racial or ethnic minorities after they land these jobs. “I’m in tech because I love it,” says Emuye Reynolds, an African-American software engineer and product strategist who has worked at Apple and Flipboard. “It’s the path I chose. It’s what I’m interested in.” But she quickly added, “Being surrounded all the time by people who look different than you is challenging.”

Gender at major tech companies

The tech industry remains largely a boys' club.

A concern voiced with regularity by women in tech is how their comments and comportment are perceived by their male peers. “If you have only one woman on a tech team, how that woman interacts with others, how she is … people will perceive [her behavior] as ‘Well, she does that because she’s a woman,’” Reynolds said,

Anecdotes of implicit gender bias reinforce what Kieran Snyder, a tech industry veteran with a Ph.D. in linguistics found when she conducted an informal survey of performance reviews submitted by male and female employees at various tech companies. Women were far more likely than men to receive negative feedback. Adjectives like “bossy,” “strident” and “abrasive” — along with “emotional” and “irrational” — were applied exclusively to women when describing behavior.

The need for a culture shift at tech companies seems obvious if any of these diversity initiatives are to be successful. Without a supportive work environment for underrepresented employees, “people can feel isolated,” said Laura Weidman Powers, the founder of Code2040, a nonprofit that provides mentoring and internships for black and Latino coders. “Anytime something doesn’t go well, there’s this … question of ‘Is [my] race or gender involved?’ It’s a constant questioning of situations and your own performance … the way folks react to you … It really kind of wears you down.”

But it can be difficult getting leadership to acknowledge internal culture as a problem in the first place, said Nicole Sanchez, who as head of Vaya Consulting works with companies to increase diversity. She described a consulting session with an unnamed tech firm with 200 employees after a racially offensive thread was added to a companywide email. “It was clearly offensive [to] black people,” she recalled. “The head of HR said to me, ‘But neither of our two black employees came [forward] to complain.’” She responded by asking the HR executive to think about what those employees had to gain by complaining, versus what they had to lose. In the fast-paced and high-pressure tech environment, no one wants to be perceived as the complainer who spends time monitoring co-workers’ behavior instead of shipping product. Situations like these “put a lot of pressure on people” she said, which can make retaining underrepresented employees more difficult.

‘Anytime something doesn’t go well, there’s … this question of ‘Is [my] race or gender involved?’ It’s a constant questioning of situations and your own performance … the way folks react to you … It really kind of wears you down.’

Laura Weidman Powers

founder, Code2040

So why is so much attention devoted exclusively to increasing the talent pool? “It’s more comfortable for companies to point to the pipeline issue,” said Powers. “To be fair, unless you already have folks who have experienced these issues speaking up and sharing, it’s really hard for somebody in the majority group to put themselves in the shoes of someone [whose gender or race is] underrepresented.”

Ellen Pao’s discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins highlights gender issues that are all too familiar to tech veterans like Kimberly Bryant, who has held management positions for most of her career. The founder of Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that exposes preteen girls of color to programming, Bryant knows firsthand how crucial it is to have support from leadership when navigating a male-dominated culture. “I remember receiving a lot of the backlash that I see in this Kleiner Perkins case … speaking up too much, being too aggressive … so I decided to tone it down in meetings with my peers and not offer as much, even when I really did have something to say. I remember vividly having this senior director pull me aside and say, ‘I hired you because you have a diverse opinion, and I want you to speak up.’ Having that voice, at that level, stand behind me made a difference. Because otherwise … in a room with only male peers and as [the only] person of color, there’s a lot of pressure to not rock the boat and blend in.”

Black and Latino men are faced with a hiring disparities significantly wider than even the gender gap — one that places additional pressure on those who do get hired to perform well. “I beat myself up a lot when I don’t … figure stuff out,” said Perry Ogwuche, a 22-year-old software engineer of Nigerian descent working at Jawbone. While quick to point out that he’s been treated just like any other young engineer fresh out of school, he can’t help thinking, “I can’t be messing up, because there’s already the stereotype that I’m hired only because I help increase the diversity rate.”

In an age where images of black men in the media still skew overwhelmingly toward rappers and athletes, it’s no surprise that white co-workers often bring a limited frame of reference to their interactions with black peers. “What you do have is a lot of uncomfortable, awkward conversations,” Pinterest engineer Makinde Adeagbo told Bloomberg in an interview late last year. He recalled an exchange early in his career with a white interviewer in which he was asked to expound on the evolution of the N-word.

The challenges for companies that genuinely value diversity are that creating it doesn’t happen on its own and sustaining it requires buy-in from all employees. “If a company does not start out with diversity in mind … [there’s] the potential to default to a certain type of culture, which can be exclusive,” said Lisa Lee, the diversity manager at Pandora. “Ensuring that employees are continually acknowledging and correcting biases — conscious and unconscious — is important.”

Change won’t come easily. But without such a commitment, many observers believe, Silicon Valley will keep churning out companies that bear little resemblance to the users they serve.

Race/ethnicity at major tech companies

Many firms still lack diversity.

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