At the typical Silicon Valley tech company, the demographics still very much match the stereotype: Employees are more likely to be male, and more likely to be white or Asian, than in a non-tech business. Some companies that have committed to become more diverse have struggled to actually make that happen; Intel, for example, had a slightly smaller percentage of Hispanic employees, and the same percentage of black employees, a year after pledging to transform its workforce so it represents the available talent.
But other tech companies are starting to have a little more success. At the Code2040 Summit, an event that brought black and Hispanic tech students to San Francisco to meet with the industry, four companies–Pandora, Slack, Airbnb, and the health insurance startup Clover Health–explained what they’re doing to become more diverse.
At Slack, like most tech companies, the first stage of the interview process is a coding exercise. But when it’s evaluated, the engineers don’t know who the applicant is. “We don’t know your name, we don’t know your gender, we don’t know where you went to school,” says Leslie Miley, director of engineering at Slack (and a former engineer at Twitter, where he was the only black engineering manager and where he called out the company on its lack of diversity). “We don’t know, and we don’t care . . . it’s changing your process to remove bias up front.”
Along with some of the company’s other policies, the blind interview process has helped. Around 9% of the engineers at Slack are black, twice the rate of computer science majors who are black; at Google, by contrast, the number is only 1%.
At Airbnb, all interviewers go through unconscious bias training. “It’s critical for them to be aware of their biases before they interview candidates,” says Valerie Williams, recruiter and diversity program manager at Airbnb. The company also uses standard questions for every applicant, another step that has been shown to reduce bias in interviews.
After companies recruit underrepresented minorities, it’s equally important to invest efforts in helping them want to stay. “Inclusion work is culture work,” says Marco Rogers, engineering manager at Clover Health. “Silicon Valley likes to talk about culture a lot. Before three or four years ago, ‘culture’ meant we want you to hang around the office all the time. It meant Ping-Pong tables. That’s not what it’s about.”
The challenge, he says, is making sure everyone feels fully accepted–and if they don’t, building the kind of workplace where people feel comfortable bringing that up and figuring out how to improve things. “You want to create a culture where everyone who comes in, regardless of their background, feels like their coworkers welcome them, respect them, and trust them,” he says. “Everyone wants that, but the feeling that a person of color gets is very different. Our culture work is about making it the same across the board.”
For companies, that might sometimes mean encouraging people of color to speak up at meetings. “As a black person in tech, I’ve been told and conditioned to be quiet,” says Miley. “You have to have people there who are going to bring that out, so everyone understands there’s not a penalty for speaking up or not agreeing.”
At Airbnb, employee “resource groups” are a place for underrepresented minorities to meet in a safe space to talk. Each group is connected with an executive at the company, who helps ensure that the groups also are helping Airbnb make business decisions.
“You can’t change the ratio at your company unless it comes from the top,” says Miley. “Having been at companies where it’s been a discussion at layers below the C-suite, and seeing the limited effects that has, I’ve realized that it has to happen at the top.”
Slack doesn’t have a head of diversity, but as another Slack employee has argued, the head of diversity and inclusion should be the CEO. “Diversity work is not going to happen if your executive leadership is not on board, period,” says Williams.”That’s being on board every step of the way: publicly saying things, publicly putting themselves out there, and communicating to everyone at the company that diversity is critically important, and being there–being part of the diversity work.”
The push for diversity isn’t just a push for fairness, but a business decision for each of the companies. “We’re businesses–we follow the money,” says Anita Stokes, senior manager for university recruiting at Pandora. “In this country, the demographics are changing. We need to address that.”
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