In 2014, when Silicon Valley companies began disclosing the demographics of their workforces, advocates hoped for change. It hasn’t worked out that way.
IT’S BEEN FIVE years since Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft first released diversity reports, revealing the companies’ workforces were overwhelmingly white or Asian men. Five years since Facebook first acknowledged it had “more work to do—a lot more,” and CEO Tim Cook wrote Apple employees a letter promising the company would be “as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing products.”
Since then, Microsoft acquired LinkedIn and expanded in the cloud, Facebook gained roughly 1 billion monthly active users, Google achieved quantum supremacy, and Apple released the Apple Watch, Airpods, and iPhones 6s through 11. Despite their business successes, though, none of these big tech companies has made much progress in diversifying their workforces.
The numbers are particularly stark among technical workers—the coders, engineers, and data scientists who make these companies hum. At Google and Microsoft, the share of US technical employees who are black or Latinx rose by less than a percentage point since 2014. The share of black technical workers at Apple is unchanged at 6 percent, less than half blacks’ 13 percent share of the US population.
The companies report more progress for women. At Facebook, the technical workforce is 23 percent female, up from 15 percent in 2014; Google reports similar gains. But no company is close to parity, despite having repeatedly pledged millions to address the problem.
Amazon does not report demographics for its tech workforce, making it impossible to gauge the retail giant’s progress on diversity against other big tech companies. Amazon says almost 42 percent of its workers were women, and almost 42 percent of its US workers black or Latinx, at the end of last year. But those numbers include the vast majority of Amazon’s 647,000 employees who work in its distribution centers.
Freada Kapor Klein, a founding partner at venture capital firm Kapor Capital and a longtime advocate for diversity in tech, is baffled by how differently tech companies treat their diversity investments from other business initiatives. “If you wasted a billion dollars and nowhere near met your target, you wouldn’t get your bonus, you wouldn’t have a job. And yet there seem to be no consequences,” she says. “Despite all the words, despite all the money, despite all the platitudes and initiatives, it’s hard to say that the companies are really taking it seriously.”
The companies insist they are working diligently and sincerely, but that they face obstacles. For one thing, there’s what Klein calls a “denominator problem.” The firms’ workforces have grown significantly since 2014—meaning they had to hire thousands of women and racial and ethnic minorities just to maintain the historical diversity of their staff. Facebook, for example, more than quadrupled its head count over that period, to 39,651 at the end of June.
In addition, the companies point to their efforts to encourage more women and minorities to consider tech, to help address a legacy of underrepresentation. In 2017, only 9 percent of college students graduating with a degree in computer science were black, and only 10 percent were Latinx. Google invested $25 million to give more black and Latinx students exposure to computer science, and created a one-year residency at Google for juniors at historically black colleges. Facebook, similarly, has invested in training programs, internships, and projects like TechPrep, meant to introduce the tech field to people from nontraditional backgrounds. Apple partners with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Girls Who Code, and educational institutions like community colleges that traditional serve minority students.
Microsoft and Apple did not make spokespeople available for comment for this story.
Maxine Williams, Facebook’s chief diversity officer, says some of the company’s efforts have yielded results, but it’s taken time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Plus, she says these are long-term investments. Tech companies have to wait until those high school and college students graduate and apply for jobs to reap the benefits of these programs.
Once those more diverse hires arrive, companies have to learn how to keep them. In 2018, Google reported attrition data for the first time, showing black and Latinx employees left at higher rates than their white counterparts. In response, the company took steps including hiring retention case managers to work with employees from underrepresented backgrounds. This year, attrition rates fell for those groups. But Jim Heighington, Google’s head of diversity strategy, described the situation via email with a familiar phrase: “There is still work to be done.”
Other companies don’t release their attrition numbers, but a 2017 report from the Kapor Center found it to be a big problem across the industry. That report surveyed over 2,000 tech employees who left their jobs, and found many people of color felt they had unfairly been passed over for a promotion or faced stereotyping. A recent survey by diversity nonprofit Girls Who Code revealed that many women who applied for internships at tech companies said their interviewers asked inappropriate or gender-biased questions. Others reported being flirted with, dismissed, or demeaned.
Klein says the attrition problem reveals that despite all their investments, tech companies still haven’t addressed biases in their cultures. Those biases led to unfair hiring practices that created relatively homogenous workforces, she adds, and they’ll keep companies from achieving their diversity goals. If companies can’t change their cultures, they’ll have a hard time hiring fast enough to move the numbers. And they probably won’t be able to keep new hires around for much longer than their predecessors.
There are some brights spots. AnitaB.org, which advocates for women in tech, found that larger companies, including Microsoft, are promoting women at a slightly higher rate than men. Correspondingly, those larger companies’ retention rates for women exceeded those of small and midsize companies. That may, in part, explain why the share of women in tech has steadily risen. Jacqueline Copeland, AnitaB.org’s chief operating officer, says the data indicates tech companies may finally be reaching a tipping point, where there are enough women at organizations to truly change the culture.
That doesn’t mean companies can become complacent. In 1985 more than 35 percent of computer science majors were women. But by 2010, that share had dipped below 20 percent, driven by a number of factors—including advertising campaigns that sold computers to boys instead of girls, and popular ideas about what coders should look like (nerdy, white, and male).
To truly change culture, says Klein, “there isn’t a checklist, there isn’t a silver bullet. This is hard work sustained over years. That’s the crux of the problem.” That means tech companies need to keep investing in hiring programs, build better retention initiatives, and get everyone, at every level of the company, to value and prioritize diverse and inclusive workforces. Or, to paraphrase a diversity report or two (or four), there’s a lot more work to do.