On Ayanna Howard’s first day at NASA leading a robotics team, she walked into her office and was greeted by a man who told her, “The secretaries aren’t here. They moved their meeting down the hall.”
Her response? “Hi, I’m Dr. Ayanna Howard. You’re working for me on this project.”
Despite her qualifications, Howard, a black woman, couldn’t help but feel deflated by the assumption that she didn’t belong there.
The tech sector is hampered by unconscious biases that distort perceptions. And it’s a big problem. Tech will continue to lose top talent if we don’t make significant progress in changing the ratios. By several measures, the tech world is stagnating or even moving backwards when it comes to achieving greater equity for women and people of color.
According to LinkedIn’s research, only 28% of software engineers are women, and that number has only gone up 3% over 15 years. Even worse, women in leadership roles has risen a measly 2.3%.
The numbers are even more bleak in the funding world: Between 1999 and 2013, there was a 40% drop in female VCs, according to Babson’s. Furthermore, only 3% of VC funds have black and Latinx people on their teams. In 2017, women-led companies made up 4.4% of all VC deals, a 2% increase in 10 years, according to Pitchbook. For women of color, the numbers are utterly dismal: Only 0.2% of venture capital went to startups founded by black women, according to #ProjectDiane.
The nonprofit I founded, Women Who Tech, aims to change the ratio in tech. Through our Women Startup Challenges and other work, we’ve worked with 1,700-plus women-led ventures, numerous investors, and engineers. One big lesson that’s emerged is that the tech culture has relied on pattern recognition for too long.
Based on our learnings, here are eight ways founders, investors, and engineers can start shaking things up to fix tech’s diversity and inclusion problems in 2018.
1. Think of diversity from the start. Sarah Kunst, founder of Proday, recommends using the “mirror rule”: Making sure that people you bring on–employees, service providers, etc.–don’t always look like you. “Empowering your teams with the mirror rule means they can gently and easily ensure that more diverse and inclusive groups are being formed across all company touch points.”
And diversity has to be baked in, says Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn. “One key way for startup founders to address diversity and inclusion “is to be diverse and inclusive from ground zero.” And for good reason: “Women challenge the status quo because we are never part of it.” She also advises focusing on finding “the least represented and championed group in tech: black women.”
2. Address unconscious bias in your hiring. Another hiring bias is prioritizing top engineering schools as recruitment pools. Language app Duolingo changed their recruitment process to achieve a 50:50 gender ratio for new software engineer hires. In addition to building partnerships with inclusive organizations, they took a data-driven approach and prioritized recruiting from schools with more than 18% women undergraduate computer science majors.
Lukas Blakk, mobile release manager at Snap, says another way to address your own hiring biases is to create a list to review to remind yourself of your own biases before each interview you conduct.
3. Untap understanding of consumer needs with diverse engineering teams. To ensure products and services have wide appeal, get input from people who reflect the full range of end users. “If we don’t get women and people of color at the table — real technologists doing the real work — we will bias systems,” Fei-Fei Li, Google’s chief artificial intelligence and machine learning scientist, told Wired. Undoing that bias later, she says, may be “close to impossible.” Building for your entire consumer population can also help avoid accusations of bias and embarrassment, as Apple learned when its facial recognition feature struggled with black and Asian faces, sparking charges of racism.
4. Track and encourage promotions. The promotion process at most companies rewards self-promoters. So change the system. “Individually encourage all women and underrepresented minorities in your organization to go for a promotion,” suggests Blakk. “Trust that those folks are less likely to put themselves up, so do the extra work to actively pursue them for promotion packages.”
5. Increase the percentage of women and people of color making investment decisions. Just as we must diversify the tech workforce, we must also change the face of investment. “An obvious but real thing we can do is increase the percentage of diverse leaders making investment decisions and leading deals,” says Rebecca Kaden, partner at Union Square Ventures. “The more diversity around a venture firm table, the more likely that diversity will be reflected in its portfolio (and, as a result, the better the portfolio is likely to perform).”
6. Increase ROI by devoting a percentage of your investments to fund inclusive startups. Greater representation isn’t about charity or fairness. It’s about understanding consumer needs and generating profits. Racially diverse startup teams generate 35% higher financial returns than their industry peers, according to McKinsey. Studies also show that women-led startups generate 15% higher financial returns than startups run exclusively by men.
“Why aren’t diverse founders being funded, given the data showing they generate higher returns in business?” asked Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies.
7. Advocate internally to recruit and retain more diverse teams. Many tech companies are striving to recruit and retain more inclusive teams. Jean Jimbo, software engineer at the BBC, says they’ve had success hosting events and building an internal network that holds monthly meetups on issues facing women in STEM. “It’s a space where women can get validated, and where people say, ‘Yes, I’ve been through that,’ and provide helpful career advice.”
8. Expose yourself to different perspectives. Having cross-cultural experiences impacts the way you think as an engineer, says Jimbo. “When you immerse yourself in different cultures, you see the world from different perspectives and solve problems better.”
Stephanie Lampkin, founder of Blendoor, says building empathy is key. “Go outside your comfort zone to experience marginalization firsthand. Seeking out situations where you are the minority can shift your perspective.”