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Breaking Past 1% in Silicon Valley

Despite public commitment, most of the major tech companies have only made minimal improvements in diversity hiring. What’s the solution?

Breaking Past 1% in Silicon Valley
[Photo: Flickr user ]

If attention were the same as progress, Silicon Valley would be a model of gender and racial parity. If progress matched rhetoric, America’s top tech companies would be celebrating the full talents of women, people of color, and other under-represented groups disadvantaged by hiring practices of today.

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Since Intel’s announcement in January that it is spending $300 million on diversity, there have been thousands of media articles highlighting the lack of equal representation in Silicon Valley. There have also been several company announcements about intensive efforts, company resources, and a renewed CEO focus on changing the tech culture that limits the rise of a wider representation of gender, racial, and socio-economic groups.

Indeed, no issue in my experience has so dominated the conversation in Silicon Valley as diversity has in recent months. In the last month, Google shared its impressive commitment to diversifying talent, having spent over a hundred million dollars on anti-bias trainings. Google’s company blog announced their new numbers, proud to see “early progress” in their work “toward a web that includes everyone”.

Google’s progress from 2014 to 2015: a 1% increase in the number of women in technology. Even worse, there was no change in the percent of Black and Hispanic employees.

On June 8, LinkedIn announced on its official blog that the “latest numbers show encouraging results, and we are pleased with our progress.” LinkedIn’s progress from 2014 to 2015: a 1% increase in the number of women in technology. Change in representation of Blacks and Latinos? No comment. To be fair, they did see one glimmer of progress—women now make up 30% of leadership where in 2014 they were 25%.

SalesForce’s Mark Benioff was quoted on June 12 saying that “I wish I could rewind time and go back and put that women’s equality issue into the culture from the beginning; [it is now] as big an issue as the philanthropy issues [were] for me.” Their reported increase in women since their 2014 numbers were published? 1%.

And Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg was quoted last week at the company’s annual meeting saying that, while they have made progress, they have a ways to go. The progress they’ve made at the time of their June 25 update is 1% more technical female employees and no improvement for more equal racial representation.

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A year is a very long time in the technology world, and yet here in Silicon Valley—the birthplace of technology—the new standard in diversity progress is 1%. Can you think of any other business metric where a 1% year-to-year increase would be hailed by a publicly traded company’s CEO as progress? Especially after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to make that change?

The concept of cruel optimism comes to mind when I think of the expectations set, the commitments and resources given, compared to the glacial progress made. Cruel optimism is when your attachment to something sustains you while at the same time becoming an obstacle to flourishing.

For the tech sector, expectations have been set high. Tens of millions have been spent—per company—on anti-bias training to attempt to address culture change. Industry wide, over a billion dollars have been spent to build a pipeline to bring more women and people of color into the workforce. Yet a small handful of women and people of color have made it through the door.

So what about the women and people of color who applied, but didn’t get the job? Like tech company CEOs, should they too stay optimistic, should the message for them be: “Keep trying and next year you could represent that 1%”?

I don’t think so. I’m hopeful that the next wave of progress will be rooted in what Silicon Valley does best: innovative technology to solve problems at scale.

At Unitive we’re working with companies who are pioneering a comprehensive technology platform to disrupt bias at the moment it happens, providing companies a system for swift transition to attracting, hiring, and promoting the best talent for the job.

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When companies embrace technology as a tool to eradicate unconscious bias, we won’t see the kind of incremental change that counts as “progress” this year. We will see meaningful movement, the start of a systemic overhaul, a Silicon Valley that both values and reflects the full talents of the 21st-century global economy.

Laura Mather, PhD, built her career creating software solutions for organizations like the National Security Agency, eBay, and her own cyber security start-up Silver Tail Systems. Mather has been recognized by Fast Company as one of the Most Creative People in Business and by Fortune as one of the Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs.

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