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Why so many companies’ diversity numbers fall flat

Since 2014, tech giants have released diversity reports in the name of transparency—but those numbers can be misleading and provide an incomplete picture of a company’s workforce.

Why so many companies’ diversity numbers fall flat
[Photo: nevodka/iStock]
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In 2014, tech heavyweights finally caved to pressure and started releasing data on their workforces, confirming what many people in the industry already knew to be true: Companies such as Google and Facebook were overwhelmingly white and male. The tech industry has issued updated diversity reports nearly every year since, along with waves of mea culpas pledging to do better.

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But with the exception of standouts such as Intel—which invested $300 million into diversifying its ranks and reached its initial goals by 2018—few companies have made good on that promise. (Even Intel has only reached what it calls “full representation,” which means its demographics now reflect the available talent pool of women and underrepresented groups in the U.S.)

The likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google have hired more women, but they still represent less than a quarter of each company’s technical workforce. While their share of Black and Latinx employees has increased marginally, much of that progress can be traced to nontechnical roles.

Diversity reports have drawn more attention to the demographics of the tech industry, and they’ve probably been eye-opening for some of tech’s most prominent CEOs. But six years later, it’s clear diversity reports haven’t been nearly as effective—or transparent—as we might have hoped.

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In this week’s bonus episode of The New Way We Work, we look at what is often missing from these reports:

The data can be misleading

Most tech companies provide overall diversity figures but also break out numbers for technical roles and leadership positions, which tend to be the most homogeneous. Still, diversity reports can gloss over and understate the lack of progress in those departments. In its most recent report, for example, Apple notes that “overall representation of women continues to increase at Apple globally.” But even the overall percentage of women has inched up slowly, with much of the growth concentrated in nontechnical, nonleadership roles. What’s more, retail employees—who are lower-wage and tend to be more diverse—pad Apple’s overall numbers, particularly when it comes to race. The company has made virtually no headway with hiring Black and Latinx employees into technical and leadership roles, but its overall figures reflect an increase of a few percentage points across underrepresented groups, making them more than 25% of Apple’s total workforce.

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Some companies, such as Amazon, decline to release specific data by department. Since Amazon doesn’t offer any insight into the demographics of its technical workforce, its diversity reports are an incomplete picture of its workforce, skewed favorably by the hundreds of thousands of low-wage warehouse workers who are disproportionately people of color. (The company’s most recent report claims that Black and Latinx workers account for 45% of Amazon’s U.S. workforce.)

While there is some overlap in terms of how each business presents diversity data, the lack of standardization across the industry also makes it harder to evaluate their progress and hold companies accountable. None of the major tech companies seem to provide raw data, opting to use percentages instead. There’s also not enough clarity around how employees are categorized, from who counts as “leadership” to what qualifies as a technical job.

Diversity is defined narrowly

Since the tech industry has historically been white and male, most companies that publish diversity reports count women among their underrepresented employees. While some tech giants are, in fact, making strides toward gender parity, that can also be a smokescreen, acting as shorthand for diversity and deflecting attention from halting progress elsewhere. Though Google disaggregates its data to capture intersectionality—and offers a far more detailed snapshot than other companies—most reports address race and gender separately.

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Given the tech industry’s relative inaction on racial diversity—especially when it comes to women of color—it’s fair to assume many of the newer hires are white women, but companies don’t volunteer that information. (Large tech companies are required by law to file an EEO-1 form, in which they have to provide a detailed breakdown by race and gender with raw data, but employers are not required to make this public.) The result is most public diversity reports fail to accurately categorize employees who are women of color or other people with multiple identities. And often these reports are laser focused on race and gender, which means companies may not be examining how their workforce identifies in terms of age, disability, or gender and sexual orientation—let alone how those identities might intersect.

Transparency isn’t enough

Even though their findings are often disappointing, diversity reports have helped tech companies project a degree of transparency. Many businesses have built up some goodwill by publishing diversity data, in part because so many organizations, both in and out of the tech industry, still refuse to do so. But with each poor showing, diversity reports become less effective as a tool of accountability, as the public—and companies themselves—get accustomed to seeing little change. (It doesn’t help that at many companies, the head of DEI does not report directly to the CEO.) Reporting diversity metrics does little good if companies don’t use the data to set clear, realistic goals.

The pressure of releasing annual diversity reports may also lead companies to prioritize interviewing and hiring more diverse candidates, without making broader systemic changes that allow underrepresented employees to thrive and succeed in the workplace. With the exception of Google, which first shared attrition data in 2018, most diversity reports don’t really address the issue of retention and the role it plays in building and maintaining a more inclusive workforce.

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Following the protests against racial injustice last summer, many companies have set ambitious new diversity goals. Facebook, for example, committed to doubling the number of Black and Latinx employees by 2023, while Twitter set out to increase the share of underrepresented employees to 25% of the U.S. workforce over the next five years. But if the recent treatment of Timnit Gebru at Google and Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks at Pinterest is any indication, the tech industry still has a long way to go in supporting underrepresented workers once they have a foot in the door.


To hear more, you can listen and subscribe to The New Way We Work on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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