The tech industry faces a diversity problem, a fact recognized by industry leaders. At this year’s FOCUS100 conference, diversity was praised for allowing different perspectives to have input whether making a product or policy. The conference was put on by digitalundivided, a social enterprise founded by Kathryn Finney that promotes underrepresented groups in the tech industry.
FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn addressed the issue, citing many startups whose early employees are friends and classmates — causing a tendency for the ecosystem to look homogeneous:
We have to recognize that one way is not the optimal way… When we move forward, let’s recognize the way you started might have been OK, but the way you continue should not be [the same] way, whether it’s on purpose or not.
How then, can tech firms and startups make a measurable impact? For one, having women in leadership roles help. Erin Teague, director of product at Yahoo, said that she worked for the company in large part because of the company’s strong, technically-minded woman CEO, Marissa Mayer. “I’ve literally never worked with a black woman on my team,” she said.
Maxine Williams, global head of diversity at Facebook, said the problem was partly due to companies employing diversity programs in an ineffective way: “The [diversity program] that falls short is where the company invests in a diversity team, and says, ‘You have to fix this problem,'” said Williams. “At Facebook, it’s every team’s problem.”
It seems that making it everyone’s problem does have an impact. Farhad Manjoo recently reported on Google’s efforts to combat unconscious bias by having their employees listen to a lecture on the topic. Brian Welle, a researcher at Google’s People Operations (conventionally known as HR), developed the lecture to explain that the more we are aware of our unconscious biases, the more we can overcome them. The lecture seems to have helped the company make progress:
Not long ago the company opened a new building, and someone spotted the fact that all the conference rooms were named after male scientists; in the past, that might have gone unmentioned, but this time the names were changed.
During one recent promotion meeting in which a group of male managers were deciding the fate of a female engineer, a senior manager who had been through the bias training cautioned his colleagues to remember that they were all men — and thus might not be able to fully appreciate the different roles women perform in engineering groups… The woman was promoted.
Another time, in an all-company presentation, an interviewer asked a male and female manager who had recently begun sharing an office, “Which one of you does the dishes?” The strange, sexist undertone of the question was immediately seized upon by a senior executive in the crowd, who yelled, “Unconscious bias!”