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Will Twitter's New Board Members Help Solve Its Diversity Problem?

Twitter just announced two new board members, but some experts are skeptical that they can help solve the company's diversity problems.

Will Twitter's New Board Members Help Solve Its Diversity Problem?
[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

In November 2015, a former Twitter developer lambasted the company for its inability to foster a diverse workplace. "There were moments," Leslie Miley wrote in a Medium post, "that caused me to question how and why a company whose product has been used as an agent of revolutionary social change did not reflect the diversity of thought, conversation, and people in its ranks."

On April 8th, Twitter announced two new board members. Many saw this as a chance to prove that it was ready to tackle the problems Miley and others enumerated. Ultimately, the company went with Martha Lane Fox—a U.K.-based travel website cofounder and digital advocate—and PepsiCo executive Hugh Johnston to its board.

The Twitter board now consists of two women, eight men, and one person of color. Two of those eight men will be leaving the board following the 2016 annual meeting. After the announcement, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that more board members would be added soon—"ones that will bring diversity"—but no word yet about who they are or when they'll be announced.

The two new board members are undoubtedly seasoned executives. Johnston has worked at PepsiCo for more than a decade, as well as served on AOL's board for three years (he vacated his seat last June). Lane Fox is a well-known British businessperson. In the '90s she cofounded the travel website lastminute.com, and has since been involved in various other businesses. She also founded the online advocacy group doteveryone.org.uk, which highlights how Internet technologies can be used for the greater good.

Despite the new blood, it does leave an elephant in the room. Twitter has been dealing with diversity issues for quite a while now. It’s last diversity report—published in August 2015—indicated that less than 30% of its leadership was non-white, and only 2% of the company’s entire staff identified as black or African-American. Following the release of these numbers, Twitter committed to fostering a more diverse workforce. Miley’s comments, which were published four months after Twitter’s pledge, sent a message that perhaps the company’s public comments didn’t match the reality.

Building A More Diverse Board

For months, people wondered who would fill these seats. One prominent rumor said that Twitter was courting TV producer Shonda Rhimes. Instead, Lane Fox appears to represent the voice of diversity on Twitter’s board—at least for now. In an op-ed for the Telegraph, she writes, "Diversity on boards is critical to sustaining and advancing performance." But is her presence enough?

Many see the omission of a person of color as the most glaring issue. "I do think there ought to be on Twitter’s board several representatives of those who are among the most active Twitter users," says Freada Kapor Klein, a California-based investor, diversity advocate, and philanthropist. Dorsey's tweet hinted that this may change, but no updates have been divulged.

Kapor Klein has spent years advocating for equality and diversity in the tech industry. She and her husband Mitch Kapor oversee the Kapor Center for Social Impact as well as its investment arm, Kapor Capital. She not only invests in startups that address social concerns, but frequently gives talks to larger companies about how to improve their work culture. In fact, Kapor Klein has spoken at Twitter more than a few times over the last few years—and even gave a talk to its engineering team.

When giving these talks, she tries to enlighten attendees about hidden biases. She sees this as one of the reasons companies have trouble diversifying—people naturally align themselves with people like them. She added that that’s why "employee referral systems will never get you to diversity."

Twitter is a specifically acute situation. Not only has it been under fire for its lack of diversity, but its user growth has flattened. The company brought on Twitter co-founder and current Square CEO Jack Dorsey to begin its turnaround, and is now attempting to redefine itself as a vital social platform for the masses. While Kapor Klein admits that she has yet to form an opinion of the new board members, she does see the need for Twitter to bring on a voice that better represents its users.

User Base Versus Representation

Part of this equation is proving that the company cares about and is representative of its user base. As Rachel Thomas—an instructor at the all-women coding institute Hackbright who’s written about tech’s diversity shortcomings—says, Twitter has "a large user base of black people." A good start, then, would be to have the internal company makeup try to mirror its most ardent customers. "That's something they should be working on," adds Thomas.

But another issue that Kapor Klein sees is companies considering diversity an afterthought—a "check the box" approach, as she calls it. They should be tackling this issue from the get-go. "It’s phenomenally easier to bake in diversity and inclusion to a startup," she says, "then to try to retrofit it to a company." Twitter has been around a long time in tech years, and is just now coming to grips with these cultural issues.

The stakes are high for Twitter—as they are for nearly every company out there. Organizations like Twitter, Facebook, Apple, and Google are now releasing their employee demographic breakdown, and most are more than 50% white and 60% male. Meanwhile, retention remains a huge problem; one Harvard Business Review study says that women are twice as likely to leave tech companies.

Companies are combatting this with new positions aimed at mending these cultural fissures. Earlier this year Pinterest hired a head of diversity. And late last year Twitter brought on its own head of diversity (which it poached from Apple). Although, much like the majority of the company's boardroom, this new executive tackling these hard issues was a white male.

Now the company says it's trying to change things. While this latest round of appointments may not have lived up to expectations, eyes will still be fixed on how Twitter continues to evolve. And hopefully new members will be announced soon. Fast Company reached out to Twitter about the new appointments, as well as its diversity attempts. A spokesperson replied via email that the company had nothing to add about the new board members beyond the original announcements and also highlighted various ways it's seeking out and supporting diverse candidates. They went on, "At Twitter, we prioritize inclusion and are working to advance diversity in our company. Just as inclusion lives on our platform, we want Twitter to be a great place to work for everyone, and we want our workforce to reflect the vast backgrounds of the people who use Twitter."

Other tech companies like Slack have also been making strides at transparently releasing diversity data as well as attempting to make the work environment more inclusive. In fact, Slack just hired former Twitter developer Leslie Miley.

Companies like Twitter still have huge hurdles to overcome. And people are waiting for a real cultural change. "No one has gotten it right," says Kapor Klein. "I think that’s sobering."

Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the board appointments and didn't mention Jack Dorsey's role as Twitter co-founder.

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