Diversity in tech: Lots of attention, little progress

BARBARA ORTUTAY | 2/6/2017, 9:56 a.m.
The tech industry brought us self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and 3-D printers. But when it comes to racial and gender ...
Aniyia Williams, founder and CEO of Tinsel, left, talks about program placement with Kara Lee, at the offices of Galvanize in San Francisco, Jan. 3. Williams says she has made sure to hire women as well as underrepresented minorities. Tinsel makes women’s jewelry that functions as tech devices. Eric Risberg

Diverse perspectives can also help prevent grievous errors – such as a problem that arose at Google in 2015, when a photo-recognition feature misidentified Black faces as gorillas.

Some related missteps:

• Snapchat released two photo filters that contorted facial features into bucktoothed Asian caricatures or Blackface. One was later withdrawn after public outcry. The other “expired,” and the company said it won’t put it back into circulation.

• Airbnb initially took no steps to prevent hosts from discriminating against guests whose profile photos showed they were Black. The practice was corrected after an outcry.

• Twitter took nearly a decade to tackle the harassment of women and minorities on its service.

In a New York Times opinion piece , Microsoft researcher Kate Crawford urged companies working on artificial intelligence to address diversity, warning that otherwise “we will see ingrained forms of bias built into the artificial intelligence of the future.”

Into the pipeline

Some 11 percent of computer science graduates were Black and 9 percent were Hispanic in the 2013-14 school year, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education. Yet only 4 percent of Google’s 2015 hires were Black, and 3 percent were Hispanic. At Intel, fewer than 5 percent of hires were Black and 8 percent were Hispanic. Numbers at other tech companies are comparable.

Major tech companies have a long tradition of hiring applicants from top-tier universities – and those universities also have a problem with diversity, even if they’re doing slightly better than the companies. Some minority applicants, meanwhile, earn their computer-science chops through community colleges or coding boot camps instead – places often overlooked by recruiters.

The few minorities hired into big tech companies can often feel alienated in overwhelmingly white (and sometimes Asian) environments. Unsurprisingly, they are sometimes reluctant to recommend their employer to friends, classmates and former colleagues, furthering the cycle of underrepresentation, Williams and others say.

When the culture doesn’t fit

Silicon Valley startups like to talk about “culture fit” – in theory, the question of whether a job candidate’s attitude and behavior meshes well with a company. In practice, though, it can mean that since a lot of people are white and male, they “hire what they know,” says Dave McClure, a prominent angel investor in Silicon Valley.

Larger companies such as Facebook publicly eschew discussions of “fit,” although the notion can unwittingly seep into hiring practices. For example, a 2013 study found that words used in engineering and programming job listings could serve to discourage women from applying. Words like “competitive,” `’dominant” and “leader” can make a job seem less appealing to women in a field that is already male-dominated.

Some companies, including Facebook, offer training on “unconscious bias” to combat the problem. But they don’t make such training mandatory for all employees.

And once hired, people can get lost in the shuffle given the lack of role models and mentors in higher ranks – and thus find it difficult to advance.

At many places, women and minorities face constant questions about their technical knowledge. They can’t help wondering if they would be taken “more seriously” if they were Whiter and male, Williams says.

Making change happen

Nancy Lee, the Google official in charge of diversity efforts, says the gorilla face-recognition incident was a “wake-up call” for the company.

“We need to include all voices from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences (when it comes to the) technology we create,” she says. “We firmly believe that good ideas don’t come out of echo chambers.”

Lee says things are getting better, slowly, but that it can be “demoralizing” to those working on diversity issues to be pressured to do things quickly. “We want to solve this for the long haul,” she says.

But Miley, the former Twitter and Google engineer, can’t understand why diversifying the industry’s workforce “seems to be such an intractable problem.”

“I wonder if it is coming up against ... the deep-seated belief that the people in these organizations are special and they want to keep out people who are not special,” he says. “In our country, increasingly the people who are not special are the people who are underprivileged.”