This past summer, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann and cofounder Evan Sharp gathered the majority of their more than 600 employees in the office cafeteria to discuss how to make their workforce more diverse. Facing a room filled largely with white and Asian men, Silbermann and Sharp made a case for the importance of diversity in fostering creativity. More varied teams are more creative, they argued, and more creative teams lead to better products and greater success. With Pinterest rapidly expanding—it added more than 150 new employees in the first half of 2015—they had to move quickly to change the composition of the company.
The gathering should have been a celebration. Nearly two years earlier, Tracy Chou, a female Asian-American programmer at Pinterest, had disclosed in a much talked-about blog post entitled "Where are the numbers?" that almost 90% of her engineering colleagues were male. The Medium post, which was approved by Silbermann and Sharp, was one of the first times a major Silicon Valley business had so explicitly quantified the diversity (or lack thereof) of its staff. A chorus of calls for similar disclosure at tech companies followed, and Pinterest got credit for spurring discussion of an important topic. In the summer of 2014, Pinterest published more specific statistics on its employees’ gender and race, with a plan to update the figures in a year, and announced ambitious measures to improve the mix. Other companies, including Facebook and Google, did the same. It seemed like an auspicious start.
But as this summer rolled around, Silbermann and Sharp were forced to admit that Pinterest still looked too much like them: a couple of dudes. The proportion of women in tech roles at Pinterest (21%) remained unchanged from the previous year; same with the percentages of African-American and Latino employees overall: 1% and 2%, respectively. As other companies unveiled their latest diversity figures, a pattern emerged. "We just hadn’t made any progress," Sharp admits.
Chou had spent much of the year watching with disappointment as she received email after email introducing new Pinterest colleagues, most of whom did little to move the diversity needle. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Pinterest had mentored female programming students, recruited at events for female, African-American, and Latino engineers, and instituted training in unconscious gender and racial bias. But none of it had made a difference.
What went wrong? Pinterest’s quest to find out is part of an uncomfortable self-examination taking place throughout Silicon Valley. Google and Intel have each begun multimillion-dollar programs to investigate and address the diversity problem, with others launching more modest efforts. Like Pinterest, many of these companies assumed that training and mentorship programs for engineers from underrepresented backgrounds would expand the pool of candidates, as would recruitment at these programs and universities with high proportions of black and Latino students. Yet so far, the results have been unimpressive.
When Sharp saw Pinterest’s lackluster numbers this past summer, he was ready to overhaul their approach. "My reaction was just, ‘We’ve got to do something more effective this year,’ " he says. In retrospect, the flaws in Pinterest’s efforts were clear: Despite the fact that recruiters had brought in applicants from nontraditional backgrounds, managers often continued to prioritize people from places like Stanford and MIT, which have less broad student bodies. And while Adam Ward, Pinterest’s head of recruiting, and Abby Maldonado, its diversity-programs specialist, had encouraged colleagues to pass along résumés from a range of candidates, most of the referrals were still of white or Asian men (after all, that’s who people tended to have worked with in the past). In other words, Pinterest’s diversity campaign had remained siloed in its human resources department.
Pinterest’s experience resembled that of many other tech companies. Sharp says he and Silbermann realized that they had neither given employees enough reason to care about diversifying Pinterest nor defined their goals. As at many companies, their efforts just hadn’t received the same staff-wide attention and careful tracking that, say, launching a big product or meeting a sales target did. And while Sharp is personally passionate about the societal benefits of making Silicon Valley more inclusive, he had to make a case to employees that was less about ethics and more about the bottom line: "This is not a charity; it’s a business."
The first step was to use the creativity angle to sell employees on the diversity measures, which Silbermann and Sharp did in that summer meeting. And they unveiled specific hiring goals: In 2016, they declared, 30% of their new employees in engineering roles would be female, and 8% would be from underrepresented ethnic minorities, such as African Americans and Latinos. They took pains to emphasize that these numbers were guidelines, not quotas—but semantics aside, the priority was clear.
Pinterest is also partnering with the consulting firm Paradigm on an unorthodox project called Inclusion Labs. The program tests the effectiveness of various diversity measures, borrowing from Pinterest’s iterative approach to product building—repeatedly testing new ideas, continually making adjustments. The Labs takes a research-oriented approach to study how subtle changes in areas such as recruiting, hiring, and promotion influence the success of female candidates and those of color. This includes creating test groups and control groups, a logic that resonates with Pinterest’s engineers—and should help the internal credibility of any results. Since the research is ongoing and early, Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson and others are not yet prepared to discuss it in detail, but Ward offers one basic example: Given that some nontraditional job candidates aren’t as familiar with the quirks of Silicon Valley interviews, what if those candidates were sent an email, before their interview, describing what to expect? Would they then have a better chance of being hired?
Meanwhile, Pinterest’s existing, and more ad hoc, diversity efforts continue to search for footing. In late August, a small group of employees convened to plan for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, in October, a high-profile gathering of female engineers. At last year’s conference, Pinterest hired 12 engineers and interns, all of whom were recent graduates. This year, they hoped to hire 24—some ideally with more experience. Pinterest had already committed to sending nearly 50 employees to the event, yet most would be young and unlikely to connect with the higher-profile candidates. As the group brainstormed creative work-arounds, it was clear that Pinterest’s initial, instinctive approach to building diversity sometimes still prevails. There is lots of hope but little certainty about what works.
Pinterest won’t, of course, be the only company camped out at the Grace Hopper conference. Morgan Missen, an independent recruiter who has worked at Google and Twitter, explains that for senior-level positions, many Silicon Valley companies are going after the same small pool of nonwhite, nonmale candidates. "You can imagine how in-demand these candidates are," she says.
That just intensifies the pressure on Pinterest. As Sharp points out, the company faces a simple math problem: As the absolute number of employees grows, each new hire will have a smaller impact on Pinterest’s overall composition. The problem will only get harder to solve. Says Sharp, "It’s kind of now or never."
How diversity adds up at some of the top tech companies
Related: How Twitter, Facebook, Google, And Other Silicon Valley Giants Can Fix Their Diversity Problem
A version of this article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.