When it comes to diversity in tech, history doesn’t have to repeat itself

Originally shared on FastCompany.

We’re witnessing history as the Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping through the U.S. and around the world and people rise to fight racism. This also means that there’s now not a single day that passes without some tech company CEO or VC embracing the Black Lives Matter movement publicly. They go on TV to talk about the need for more diversity on boards and leadership teams, announce on Twitter new recruiting practices to increase pipeline diversity, launch investment funds focused exclusively on Black entrepreneurs, and promise on Instagram that they’re going to educate themselves.

 Watching all this, I keep having an intense feeling of déjà vu. Some of their language and proposals to improve diversity in the workplace are almost identical to what I’ve been hearing for many years around the lack of women in tech. When the world was shaken by the #MeToo movement in 2017, tech leaders went through a similar pattern of mea culpas and public declarations of how “from now on things will be different.”

And if the big push for better gender diversity in tech is any indication of what’s going to change for Black people in tech, and hopefully all underrepresented people, I’m afraid to say that it may not be much.

Mixed results

The #MeToo movement brought some improvement. There has been a shift in what kind of culture is tolerated, at least in principle. Some bad boys (and girls) have been ousted, and people like Reid Hoffman, Marc Benioff, and Satya Nadella are inspiring a next generation of tech leaders to be more empathetic and focused on increasing diversity. It has become a bit easier for women to be taken seriously when they report gender bias or write about it (see Whistleblower by Susan Fowler, Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener, or Reset by Ellen Pao). Employees have felt more empowered to organize and drive corporate and social changes, leading to Google, eBay and Facebook, for example, ceasing to apply forced arbitration in cases of sexual misconduct.

A group of researchers published a survey last summer of more than 500 women, looking at changes in sexual harassment in the workplace from 2016 to 2018. Twenty-five percent of women reported being sexually coerced in 2016; that number fell to 16% in 2018. The researchers also reported that “unwanted sexual attention declined from 66% of women to 25%.” At the same time, though, reports of gender harassment at work increased from 76% of women in 2016 to 92% in 2018. “This data suggests that while blatant sexual harassment—experiences that drive many women out of their careers—might be declining, workplaces may be seeing a ‘backlash effect,’ or an increase in hostility toward women,” the four researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

The raw number of women in tech has moved by a few percentage points, but we’re still very far from parity. In 2019, women held 23% of tech jobs at Apple, up from 20% in 2014. At Facebook they increased from 15% to 23%; at Google from 17% to 23%; and at Microsoft from 17% to 20%. Women over 35 years old at tech companies are 3.5 times more likely to be in junior positions than men. As reported by Hired.com, 60% of the time, men in tech are offered higher salaries than women for the same job title at the same company, which leads to women earning 3% less in product management positions and up to 10% less in DevOps positions. Only 12% of executive positions in public tech companies are held by women. Women continue to report real difficulties when it comes to being promoted, recognized, or simply taken seriously. And for women of color, all these numbers, when they are reported, are much worse.

Same old recipes

The actions and tools that companies deploy to tackle the issue of diversity are exhaustingly familiar. Recruit a head of diversity. Have endless discussions and all-hands about how to fix the culture. Update a few internal documents accordingly. Ensure that you have one or two visible women on your board and in your leadership team. Implement some kind of compulsory unconscious bias training and workshops. Announce that you’re changing your recruiting and review processes to include some version of the Rooney Rule and likely a few representatives of minorities in the decision process. Publish a diversity report. Subsidize a few employees’ initiatives. And then, make a press release about all of it.

The problem—as the numbers above demonstrate—is that this doesn’t really work or it works incredibly slowly. Big hires make for great PR announcements but don’t fix the anemic recruiting pipeline, nor the way promotions are handled. Obsessing about fixing the culture doesn’t actually change the culture. The minority is getting tired of educating the majority.

Though research shows that having a diverse workforce improves performance, managing a team of people with different backgrounds, languages, culture, and perspectives can be challenging. A study by researchers at Northwestern and Stanford universities, for example, found that students who actively integrated socially distinct newcomers into their working groups generated more successful output, but felt significantly more discomfort and distress than students who allied with newcomers similar to themselves. Too many managers and employees find it more comfortable to surround themselves with people who look, sound, and think like them. And for even the most well-meaning executives, it takes commitment, empathy, and ongoing extra effort to create a truly collaborative and supportive environment when they just want to focus on getting work done as efficiently as possible.

Being hard, though, shouldn’t be enough of an excuse to be content with the current results. As tech people, we have tackled bigger, more complex projects. Projects that everybody else considered impossible to solve.

Asking the right questions

At the risk of repeating what has been said so many times before, nothing will change until diversity becomes a real priority to the point where we change the way we do business. To become true champions of diversity—be it gender, race, sexual orientation, or age—tech companies have to accept that the way they run their business needs to change. Leadership needs to be fully convinced that the long-term gains of diversity are worth the short-term pains; the same way they believe the long-term gains of innovation are worth the short-term pains of disruption. A single article is not going to solve the diversity issue that tech companies have been trying to tackle for years—but it may be useful to put a few questions out there that, in my experience, tech companies rarely take the time to properly answer.

If you haven’t done it yet, you will likely recruit for a head of diversity. Will you make it such a critical role that it will be the equivalent of Jeff Bezos’s technical adviser? Will you put that person on the path to bigger jobs afterward that have nothing to do with diversity?

Companies need to look beyond tweaking their recruitment process and start fundamentally questioning how they define what a good job candidate is. It was almost impossible for women to join boards until people started questioning the need to have previous board or CEO experience. When you recruit for an engineering position, should you optimize simply for the greatest coding skills or should you also factor in the ability to bring different ideas to coding? When you’re looking for a new designer, how do you weigh the ability to understand and bridge cultural gaps with customers? In short, how much do you really value what a diverse candidate brings to the table? And if you’re having trouble finding good candidates, how much effort have you really put into building an intern relationship or program with historically black colleges and universities and women’s colleges—and then harvesting your pipeline?

Opening your company to more diverse candidates means that all employees (not just the diverse ones) are going to need support to learn how to work with each other. Are you ready to recognize the importance of mentoring—and factor the time people devote to mentoring and the quality of their mentorship into performance reviews? Will you encourage people to spend 20% of their time on mentoring and employee community building, the same way Google famously encouraged its employees to spend 20% of their time on side projects? Will you hire mediators experienced in dealing with diversity-related challenges?

As a tech company, your company exists thanks to your product and engineering team. In the same way that you build an airtight process to produce the highest-quality products, are you willing to deeply examine the structural bias at your company and put controls in place to—if not eliminate it—reduce it to a minimum? Are you willing to ensure that non-engineers also have power within your organization and an equal voice when it comes to strategic decisions?

A few final questions: Most tech companies wholeheartedly embrace the idea of meritocracy. Employees’ promotions are frequent and usually based on measurable results. How can you leverage this system to start assessing employees not just on results, but also on behavior? Will you commit to cease promoting—and employing—people who display divisive behavior or demeaning attitude toward minorities, even if they deliver results? Even if they’re the CEO?

There are hundreds more of these questions that will need to be answered if we truly want to build diverse tech companies. As an advocate for women in tech specifically and diversity in general for a long time (and a French person who believes that street protests can change the world), I want to believe that this time is going to be different. But if we want all these big declarations and manifestos to actually lead to change in tech companies, we’re going to need to focus on these questions. It will take time, perseverance, participation of everyone, and a lot of empathy to find some answers.

Maelle Gavet has worked in technology for 15 years. She served as CEO of Ozon, an executive vice president at Priceline Group, and chief operating officer of Compass. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It.