The past year has been fraught with debate about Silicon Valley‘s inability to match rhetoric about meritocracy with regional employment of women and minorities.
- by Lauren Hepler -
- About eight months ago, it looked like 2013 might finally be the year that Silicon Valley business leaders would act to rectify their somewhat sorry records on corporate diversity. It looks like we’ll have to wait for 2014 to see how talk is translated into action.
To break the nagging diversity problem down by the numbers, more than 90 percent of startup founders are men, and 82 percent of founders are white. A recent analysis pitted the most valuable public companies in Silicon Valley against the S&P 100, and researchers found that 98 percent of companies in the S&P 100 have at least one woman director, while only 56 percent of the 150 public tech and life science companies studied can say the same.
Sure, past years have seen rare think pieces on the root causes of minority under-representation in the tech industry. But this year the conversation shifted (briefly) to the more concrete examples of how the continued failure to inject a broader range of perspectives into Silicon Valley business impacts the bottom line. Tech user bases are diverse, and some research shows that executive diversity could boost the bottom line.
So in the absence of improved numbers, perhaps the most relevant development in 2013 is the tech industry’s move toward publicizing concern about a dearth of qualified talent — another factor indicating that Silicon Valley’s over-reliance on white and Asian males may not be sustainable.
While tech spokespeople have been happy to talk about how much they value diversity, in theory, a central fact remains: Data-driven, well-funded Silicon Valley companies still haven’t done much to back up the talk with results.
Beyond one-off corporate partnerships with minority-focused organizations and recruiting efforts with undisclosed budgets, it’s difficult to say what impact, if any, the diversity push during the last year actually had on the makeup of Silicon Valley’s workforce.
A central irony for Silicon Valley in 2013: Though the year could easily be deemed the year of Big Data, it’s a nagging lack of comprehensive workforce data that makes it impossible to evaluate just how stratified Silicon Valley has become — much less to measure any progress on diversity issues. Companies aren’t required to disclose the demographic makeup of their employees, leaving the public with isolated, caveat-filled reports that show Silicon Valley lagging behind the rest of the business world.
Amid the noise — a flood of diversity-themed events, long-winded media articles and promotional press releases on the topic of women and minorities in Silicon Valley — a lot did end up happening this year.
In March 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released her now-culturally-ingrained book on the workplace gender gap, “Lean In.”
The response from the tech industry was swift and, at least at first, emphatic: CEOs like Cisco’s John Chambers professed that their worldviews were altered; designated corporate diversity departments were bolstered or established; the Lean In Foundation created its own social network.
The even more galling lack of racial and ethnic diversity atop Silicon Valley companies — especially for Latinos and African Americans — also became a topic of discussion, though far less often than the gender gap.
But the lame sexist jokes continued. Twitter’s all-male, whitewashed pre-IPO board incited waves of criticism, though the company is far from an anomaly.
The dearth of women and minorities also doesn’t only permeate white collar tech jobs. The number of women in cleantech jobs — covering everything from energy IT workers to electricians — is disproportionately low. Overall income for black and Hispanic Silicon Valley residents, we learned this year, also declined 18 percent and 5 percent, respectively, from 2009 to 2011.
Most disconcerting is the lack of diverse job candidates in the tech talent pipeline — in particular the declining number of women and minorities studying computer science — which does not bode well for future change.
Will persistence pay off?
It’s important to note that there are bright spots in the gloomy realm of Silicon Valley diversity.
By all accounts, progress has been made from past decades, when the overall workforce was much more dominated by white, male executives.
This year alone, we saw wealthy investors experimenting with their portfolios in a bid to advance women. Sheryl Sandberg herself reported a spike in anecdotal accounts of women emboldened to seek better pay for quality work.
To combat the lack of employee data released by Silicon Valley companies, one online effort even seeks to crowdsource information about the number of women working at various tech companies.
Mark Taguchi, a former technology executive, now serves as West Coast managing director of minority professional development group MLT (formerly Management Leadership for Tomorrow). He told me that penetrating Silicon Valley’s tightly-knit tech world remains a challenge for the uninitiated for a simple reason.
“People operate in tribes,” he said. “They have groups of people that they learn to trust, that they work with, that they like.”
Whether that entrenched mentality will continue to win out over Silicon Valley’s professed penchant for meritocracy is the biggest question facing the region heading into 2014.