• 06.20.14

Why Don’t Big Tech Companies Release More Diversity Data?

Weeks after Google released a breakdown of its workforce, other companies did the same–but are these honest numbers?

Why Don’t Big Tech Companies Release More Diversity Data?
[Image: Flickr user Yahoo]

Weeks after Google released its diversity data, LinkedIn followed suit, with Yahoo most recently releasing its numbers. Everyone is disappointed by the mostly male company portraits here–but what is truly unsettling is that these statistics don’t give us enough information about how many female engineers there actually are.


At Google, women hold 17% of tech roles, while women at Yahoo hold 15% of those roles. LinkedIn did not report how many women made up its tech workforce. But these companies don’t go into any more specifics. Why are these numbers so vague?

What Are These “Tech Positions”?

Saying women occupy “tech roles” is a start, but it would be interesting to know what kinds of roles fall under what these companies call technical positions. We really can’t be sure whether all their engineering teams are made mostly of men since a “technical position” could relate to something softer, like interaction design or product management. Let’s get data on how many women are actually developing and creating the products that these companies put out.

Yahoo’s infographic is typical of the lack of detail in these diversity reports; it shows that 15% of its tech employees worldwide are female, but the data does not get any more detailed than that. Neither does Google’s.

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A look at an Equal Employment Opportunity report that Yahoo made available along with the graphic shows a different breakdown of job roles. In the report, the category that might best correlate to technical roles that require bachelor’s degrees is “Professionals.” Because EEO reports have to follow certain standards, this breakdown doesn’t vary from company to company. LinkedIn’s report was done the same way.

It is hard to say whether companies are hiring female computer science graduates or not. Google used a figure from the National Center for Education Statistics that showed that 18% of computer science graduates are female in the U.S., a reason for which it might have trouble hiring women into tech roles. But that statistic only holds true for bachelor’s degree holders. The National Science Foundation shows that females are more widely represented at the master’s and doctoral levels.

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When looking at these companies’ data, there is no indication of what type of degree these female tech employees hold. Women in tech roles could hold any type of STEM degree that teaches programming in its curriculum, whether it is at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral level.

On average, in the professional world, the numbers of female techies beat out those from Google and Yahoo. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, developer, programmer and IT roles held by women in industry range from around 20% to 33%. Those numbers are much higher than what either Google or Yahoo reported in the tech category, and they exceed the figures for female computer science degree holders.

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If available labor is not the issue, than maybe retention in the tech industry is. Females leave the tech profession for many reasons, which the Anita Borg Institute frequently highlights in its reports about the tech industry.

The data is great to have, but understanding the root of the numbers is the greater task.

Accountability, Not Data

Now that the data is out there, these tech companies know they have work to do, as they have said themselves.

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“What Google has done now is set the bar for this,” says Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. “I mean, people are going to be watching them, and I’m certainly expecting those numbers go up. I think they understand that expectation.”

When Google published their numbers last month, Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google, pointed out on its blog, “Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.”

A lot of meeting those challenges seems to group into corporate social responsibility initiatives, on a macro scale. Google says that it has given $40 million to support computer science programs for women and girls since 2010. LinkedIn is one of the sponsors of the Anita Borg Institute’s annual Grace Hopper Conference. LinkedIn created an annual women’s only hackathon. Dell gave a $1 million multi-year award to the women in business advocacy organization Catalyst in 2012 to fund its research and campaigning programs.

There are also some good programs in the works for the employees. Google has made its diversity policies and programs very visible on its site. And Dell just became the first tech company to take part in a pilot program from Catalyst that brings men into the discussion around retaining women in the organization.


Getting Data Released

It could have been media pressure that got Google to release its diversity data. Jesse Jackson went on a tour of tech companies earlier this year to get them to open up about their diversity numbers, focusing on minorities. When Google was eventually ready to release its diversity data, it invited Jackson to its shareholder meeting to mark the decision. Before Jackson’s advocacy round, CNN tried for a year and a half to get diversity data from Silicon Valley’s largest companies. Many decided not to share.

“Many of them do not release their data internally, broadly, let alone publicly. There’s a real reluctance to talk about these numbers publicly,” says Whitney.

Dell, however, is one of the more compliant companies. For the last three years, it has published diversity numbers in its corporate social responsibility report. Last year, around a third of the Dell non-managerial workforce was comprised of women, around a quarter of managers was female and women made up 15% of the board. Dell’s numbers do not get more detailed than this.

Vivek Wadhwa, the academic and tech pundit, has also been putting pressure on the tech industry to address its shortcomings in diversity. His tweets alone are enough to cause a commotion in the Twitter-sphere. Last year, he criticized Twitter for not having a single woman on its board when it went public. He has been working on a book on women in tech, for what seems like forever. It is common for companies and the media to listen to him when he speaks out on the matter since he is so consistent on the topic of women in tech.

So when Yahoo put their data out there, it was a big deal for Wadhwa.

Whitney agrees that it is a good thing that this data is out there. The issue now is trying to understand it and how best to act on it.

The Unwelcoming Tech Industry

That women feel shut out from engineering positions is no secret. A Valleywag article from last year featured several interviews with female ex-programmers who have been otherwise shut out from the field because of gender discrimination and the brogramming culture.


A new study by the startup competition hosting company YouNoodle backs up the claim to how exclusive tech culture can be to women. Among top female business founders taking part in startup competitions around the world, 16% start businesses in the IT and software sectors, more than any other business sector. However, these techie women-led startups tended to find less success down the line than those in the commerce, services, and life sciences industries.

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To create the infographic, YouNoodle sifted through its internal dataset on the startup competitions it helps run, globally. It concentrated on the 1,000 women-led startups that received the highest scores, relative to their peers, during the competitions’ judging processes. All of the scores were normalized to account for different judging strategies across competitions.

Torsten Kolind, CEO of YouNoodle, and his colleagues are not quick to analyze why the data looks the way it does for these women. They simply wanted to put the numbers out there to show how startup ecosystems differ around the world. Still, they recognize that many women want to come into the IT and software industries but generally find more success elsewhere.

“We decided to just publish what we know from the data. The rest, right now, I think is mostly speculation,” says Kolind.