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The Future of Work

How Google, Pinterest, And Others Use Internships To Push Their Diversity Initiatives

Starting before they even hit the full-time workforce, interns are playing a valuable role at changing the ratio at tech companies.

How Google, Pinterest, And Others Use Internships To Push Their Diversity Initiatives
[Photo: Flickr user Joe Sampouw]

"In the world of diversity, things take time," Candice Morgan, Pinterest’s diversity chief told Fast Company when she was hired back in January.

Pinterest joined a growing number of companies, including Atlassian, Airbnb, Autodesk, and Twitter, in hiring a dedicated person to lead diversity initiatives; still, significant change takes time, and the numbers haven’t budged that much. Each of the new appointees acknowledge there is work to be done, not only to diversify the employee pool, but to make companies more inclusive.

Some companies are looking to make an impact at the earliest point of the talent recruitment process: They’re diversifying members of their internship programs. The potential ripple effect is huge.

Who’s Making a Difference

For example, internship marketplace Looksharp reports that Google hires more than 1,000 students in spring, summer, and fall. Some interns are recruited for the company’s Building Opportunities for Leadership and Development (BOLD) program. The 11-week experience combines a project-based internship with mentoring, leadership development courses, and exposure to the technology industry for students who are historically underrepresented in this field.

"The program is one of the longest standing diversity internship programs in the industry, and we launched it in 2008," Roya Soleimani, Google’s corporate communications manager tells Fast Company. "The program has had hundreds of students, and many have joined Google as full-time employees," says Soleimani, who declined to divulge exact numbers.

In March, Pinterest published a report on how the changes it made to university recruiting impacted its staff:

"Between 2015 and 2016, we saw a significant increase in the number of new grad hires and interns from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds at Pinterest. The percentage of new grad hires from such backgrounds went from 1.7% to 4.8%, and the percentage of interns went from 4.2% to 13.3%. While the percentage of women in our new grad class declined slightly (by 5%) between 2015 and 2016, our intern class now has significantly more representation of women — 53% in 2016 up from 32% in 2015."

The company will debut its first Pinterest Engage Intern Program class in Summer 2016 for freshman students from underrepresented backgrounds.

How They’re Addressing the "Pipeline" Problem

Smaller startups such as Slack, which has a headcount of around 370 worldwide, report that they committed to diversity at the beginning and Fast Company covered their progress in February. As such, they’ve enlisted help from outside agencies. Slack is working with CODE2040 to connect with African-American and Hispanic STEM students.

Laura Weidman Powers, cofounder and CEO of CODE2040, tells Fast Company that they’ve placed 86 interns at Slack and other partner companies for this summer. That’s more than double the size of last summer's class. "The growth is in part response to increased demand from companies who are beginning to prioritize diversity and inclusion as a business goal in ways they haven't in the past," she says.

At team collaboration software company Atlassian they tackled the issue from within first. Atlassian’s global head of diversity and inclusion, Aubrey Blanche, says that by tweaking a few aspects of the candidate evaluation process to remove bias, the company was able to recruit an engineering intern class of 27 students, 44% of whom are women. The company does not currently track ethnicity.

Blanche credits data analysis of its diversity numbers for the change. "That analysis revealed (that) 66% of our software teams have at least one woman," she says.

Atlassian then focused on how unconscious bias can play into the hiring process and on generating awareness of its internship opportunities among female applicants. Blanche says that in addition to standardizing interview questions and structure, Atlassian ensured that hiring panels for interns were gender diverse and provided unconscious bias training for all employees involved in the hiring process.

That training, she says, dispelled misconceptions about the lack of diversity in tech, including "Women just aren't as interested in technology" and "The true cause of imbalance is a pipeline problem."

"Shifting our focus from "culture fit" to "values fit" helps us hire people who share our goals, not necessarily our viewpoints or backgrounds," Blanche explains. The initiatives also led to improved diversity among more teams, she says. "Most importantly, our intern cohort from last year became a feeder for our full-time 2017 graduate program, which spiked from 17% women last year to a whopping 52% women this year," Blanche adds.

The Ripple Effect On Full-Time Employees

Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of diversity consultancy Paradigm, says that diversifying an intern pool can be "easier," because the pool overall is larger. But, she says, "We know that attrition out of the tech industry is a problematic pattern among people from underrepresented backgrounds."

Emerson maintains that companies focused only on diversifying their intern pool are short-sighted. "While emphasizing diversity in senior roles might take more time, the positive impact of focusing there is significant," she says. Diversity in the management and leadership communicates a culture in which people from a range of backgrounds can succeed, she says. This, in turn attracts a more diverse candidate pool overall. "And it conveys to those more junior in the organization that this is a place they can grow their careers and potentially reduce attrition," Emerson says.

There is some hope for change. In addition to the fact that 100% of CODE2040‘s fellows continue to work in tech, Weidman Powers says that she’s observed that hosting interns has a broader effect on the company’s permanent staff. She says:

"One: folks who do care about diversity and inclusion in their company see real, measurable, progress show up to work each day over the summer, and morale goes up as they see their companies taking action. Two, companies gain access to a pool of talent that can become full-time employees—both their own intern and the others in the intern's, and CODE2040's network. Three, managers gain new skills associated with managing a diverse workforce that can help the company ensure that full-time employees from all backgrounds are able to thrive at their company."

Bottom line, Atlassian’s Blanche observes: "Since today's interns are tomorrow's workers, moving the diversity needle at this early stage is critical for long-term change."

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