94% of Tech workers give their companies and industry a passing grade on diversity… but they are not alone

I came across an article on Bloomberg that looked at the results of a diversity survey of over 1400 employees in the tech industry so I decided to take a deeper look at the study for discussion in my blog this week. In light of recent class discussions about incidents at Uber and more broadly about the industry and what role changes in immigration policy may play, this is clearly a very important subject.

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One of the first things I noticed in the Bloomberg article (other than the title that is meant to catch your eye – “Everyone Knows Tech Workers are Mostly White Men… Except Tech Workers) was the statistic noted in the title of this blog: 94% of survey respondents indicated their industry, company, and work groups deserve a passing grade for diversity. This stat was a little more difficult to find in the survey website and even more difficult to find in the survey results data. What was a sentence in the survey report became a focal point of the Bloomberg article which highlights how authors will use something small to get you to read more (okay, I’m guilty as charged). And aside from that, what good is a passing grade anymore? Most students I am familiar with aren’t happy with a B+ in an elective but we’re cool with a C for a diverse and inclusive workplace?

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To continue this discussion I think it is important to define a few terms and consider a few ideas and in this discussion we will look at the tech industry but these themes apply to all industries and spaces in life. Diversity is about access and representation. It is about numbers of people but simply having diversity doesn’t necessarily make everything okay. It is important to be let in the door but even more important to have a seat at the table. A company can tout that 40% of their employees are people of color but if 80% of those employees work in entry-level positions or 95% of your facilities staff is comprised of people of color, clearly it is hard to rise to the top. This highlights the importance of having an inclusive work environment. Inclusion means people have a seat at the table (especially in the board room). In the survey 48% felt their company was diverse enough and respondents overwhelmingly believed the industry really was a meritocracy.

So how can an industry be comprised primarily of white men but still believe they are diverse? They don’t know any better. I only know the space I am in and the spaces I have been in before. Normal to me is what I am used to and this can play out in a variety of ways. If I spent the majority of my life as a white person in a town where the vast majority of citizens (and virtually all of my neighbors and classmates) were white, my new job with a 20% minority population is ridiculously diverse. If diversity only mean’s “non-white” to me because I have not taken time to build cultural competence, then I’ll highlight how diverse my office is because 30% of employees identify as non-white but will overlook that only 4% of the company identifies as black or latin@. While the country has experienced significant racial progress, it is still shockingly segregated and most people spend the majority of their lives surrounded by people with similar identities (think about your school, your home town, your friends, and your family). Conversely, people of color are likely to be in majority white spaces in the tech industry (often starting with college).

Similarly, in an industry that has always had a heavily skewed male population, a 30% female population represents tremendous change to the men who have been at the table for a decade or more. However, if there were no barriers for women or people of color, wouldn’t the populations of our companies (and exec teams) be relatively representative of the overall population? Part of the problem is related to how we benchmark ourselves – usually by comparing our company to our top competitors. As long as we are doing as well or better than them, we are pretty happy with our progress but this tunnel vision can cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture. This is why you have to think bigger when looking at data like this. If 48% of survey respondents indicate their company is doing enough in terms of diversity initiatives and 70% of the company is comprised of white men, which employees think we are doing enough?

Hopefully you can see how the same data can be viewed through very different lenses to yield different conclusions. This post isn’t meant to single out the tech industry as sexist and racist, but used as a case study to show how this can play out in any field. The tech industry is often viewed as socially progressive and diverse so I am hoping by framing the discussion in this way, people are able to consider different ways of viewing their own industry to consider more ways to be inclusive. We live in an imperfect world so our efforts of building diverse and inclusive workplaces will never be perfect, but let’s at least strive to stop saying our efforts are “good enough”, especially if we occupy the privileged spaces (as I do).

6 comments

  1. laurenmsantilli · ·

    As today is Equal Pay Day in the US, I found this post particularly interesting to read today! I’ve been reading up on articles about Equal Pay Day this morning, which is meant to mark the wage discrepancies that exist between men and women in the workforce. It’s particularly political this year as last week, on March 27th, President Trump pulled back on the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workspaces order that Obama created to protect women in the workplace. In light of that, I like that you highlighted discrepancies in diversity in the tech industry. The fact that 94% of tech workers give their workspace a passing grade is surprising to me – and makes me wonder what exactly they are comparing it to. Informative and thought provoking post!!

  2. This is a great post! I was watching PTI last week on ESPN and they had a video of UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma speaking to the issue of the lack of women coaches in women’s college basketball. He mentioned that there aren’t many women coaches because women don’t want to coach, which is completely false and he received major ridicule for it. I was surprised by his response and I think it shows a lack of understanding about diversity that extends well beyond the world of tech. That being said there are some great initiatives in the tech world, like Girls Who Code, that are trying to get minorities (women in particular) to choose a career in tech.

  3. zfarkas17 · ·

    Very interesting post. I think it is easy for people to not actively assess their company or industry to see if it is doing everything it can to promote a diverse workforce. Also a very good point about using data to show the story you want told, and how it can be manipulated.

  4. clinecapen · ·

    Great post and your point about who the survey respondents are is spot on. Most businesses have a diverse customer base so having leadership that represents that base can lead to faster and more valuable innovations to serve those customers. Corporations should ensure they have culture that will enable diversity. Flexibility for parents and care givers or even extended vacation time for employees to visit their home countries could open up the board room door to more individuals.

  5. Nice post. It does call to attention the futility of asking companies to evaluate themselves on these types of metrics.

  6. cjprall · ·

    Great post about an important topic, and something I’ve noticed even in the two tech companies I’ve spent time with. I agree with @clinecapen that diversity needs to be embedded in culture and all HR practices, but more importantly needs to apply to management and c-level roles as well.

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