Google caused a stir on May 28 by lifting the curtain on one of the tech industry’s worst-kept secrets: it revealed the demographic characteristics of its employees. And then went on to admit that it wasn’t meeting its own diversity goals, and vowed to do better.
In so doing, it set off a storm of controversy, with some praising Google for its openness and some attacking it for its failures. Other companies followed suit in revealing their own diversity successes and failures.
“We’re the first to admit that Google is miles from where we want to be—and that being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution.”,” writes Laszlo Bock, Google’s Vice President of People Operations. “All of our efforts, including going public with these numbers, are designed to help us recruit and develop the world’s most talented and diverse people,” the company added in its initial blog post.
And Google is not alone in this sentiment, though most other tech companies haven’t yet released their numbers.
In the myriad discussions on these figures, some participants ask, why does it matter if tech companies are primarily staffed by white men? Here are three reasons.
1. Companies without a diverse workforce run the risk of not developing innovations that would appeal to customer bases not represented in that workforce. That’s not to say, of course, that white men are incapable of developing products suitable for women and minorities, or that the products and services that women and minorities need are necessarily so different from what white men need. But in the same way that auto manufacturers got new insights into making cars that appeal to women when they hired women engineers, tech companies that bring in a variety of viewpoints can appeal to a broader range of customers. “Companies that are more diverse are able to tackle problems holistically, incorporating the different perspectives imparted by people from different backgrounds,” writes Inc. “You've all heard the stories about so-called groupthink and the other ills that can befall overly homogenous companies.”
2. In particular, companies with a diverse sales force could have more success approaching those customers. Sales is often about rapport, and rapport can be easier to establish if there’s common ground.
3. In an era when tech companies are constantly saying they’re having trouble finding employees with the skills they need, can they afford to overlook the millions of potential female and minority workers? As Greg Baumann, editor in chief of Silicon Valley Business Journal, writes: “Google just put you on notice: It's going to outcompete you for talent, using diversity efforts as a weapon.”
From a “for the good of society” perspective, it’s important to hire women and minorities because tech jobs pay well, and it’s good for more individuals to have access to those jobs. Some may say that it’s not the business of a company to worry about that sort of thing, but Google has always made a point of acting with a social conscience. And back to the automobile industry, recall what Henry Ford was supposed to have said about the higher wages he paid his workers: “If I pay a man enough to buy my car, he’ll buy my car.”
Some commenters to these articles say that Google, and other tech companies, aren’t hiring women and minorities because qualified people aren’t applying. That misses the point. Let’s deconstruct it.
Is something keeping qualified women and minorities from applying? Let’s find out what it is and eliminate it. For example, note that Google hires plenty of women in non-tech jobs, where the ratio is almost 50-50. Are those women being steered toward non-tech jobs, or otherwise not feeling themselves qualified for a tech job? “Unless someone wants to posit that intelligence is not evenly distributed across genders and race, there has to be some systematic explanation for what these numbers look like,” says Freada Kapor Klein, co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which is working with Google on improving its diversity.
Are women and minorities who might have the aptitude for technology not gaining the training and experience they need to be qualified? Let’s find out what’s preventing that. In particular, hiring more women and minorities means those people can act as role models and mentors to youth in their demographic group, encouraging more youth in that demographic group to look at technology as a potential career.
How are tech companies defining “qualified”? “Most tech jobs at Google require a computer science degree, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 15 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women,” writes Digital Trends. “That number is even lower among Hispanics and African Americans, who make up only 5 percent of all computer science degree holders in the United States.”
Okay. But who decided that all tech jobs require a computer science degree, or even a degree of any sort? Two college dropouts, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, seem to have done okay in the tech field. Broaden your horizon on what’s considered “qualified.”
“Making this [a computer science degree] the starting point when it’s public knowledge that there is already a deficit in the pool that you are picking from doesn’t make the best sense,” writes Angela Benton, founder and CEO of NewME Accelerator. “Shifting the focus to skill-based recruiting and being more open to how certain skills can translate into high job performance in technology and technology-enabled companies opens up the talent pool of potential hires and investment opportunities.”
A more diverse workforce is just the beginning of the issue—as Digital Trends points out, many tech companies, including Google, have boards and senior management teams primarily composed of white men as well. And Google didn’t address the ageism issue, which is also chronic in technology. But diversifying the workforce is a start.
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