This Twenty-Something Forced Silicon Valley to ‘Show Her the Numbers’
There are at least two things you can say without controversy about Silicon Valley:
It is largely white and male.
It is obsessed with data.
But just how white, and just how male, is the tech industry? No one knows. Because for most of their history, tech companies have neglected to apply that data-driven thinking to their most obvious social failing: diversity.
It’s not for lack of interest. Until quite recently, reporters had been probingthe biggest and most prominent companies for their demographic breakdowns, without success. Most of those firms had convinced federal regulators that their demographics were “trade secrets” that would cause “commercial harm” if divulged, and journalists’ repeated FOIA requests to see their annual, government-mandated diversity reports (called EEO-1s) were denied. Only a few outliers — most notably Intel and Cisco — made their diversity numbers public.
That all started to change three years ago. It began with a blog post penned by a female engineer at Pinterest. Against the odds, that post helped catalyze one publicly released diversity report after another from Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies. And the data it prompted has continued to grow, now encapsulating more than 250 companies. Armed with numbers, advocates for diversity and inclusion in tech can finally see exactly how poorly women and underrepresented minorities are faring in the industry—and some of them are banding together to expedite change.
On October 11, 2013, Tracy Chou returned home from the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Minneapolis and fired off a Medium post asking: Where are the numbers? She had been mulling the question since attending a breakfast several days earlier at the conference, where Sheryl Sandberg brought up the dire state of women’s representation in tech and posited that the gender gap was only getting worse. That caused Chou to raise an eyebrow — not because she disagreed, but because she couldn’t imagine what data Sandberg might be referencing.
“It just made me think, what numbers is she talking about, exactly?” Chou recalled. “Because nobody really had those numbers, and to my knowledge I had the best just at the back of my mind, from having talked to people at different companies. I couldn’t imagine she had any access to any better numbers. I didn’t believe that existed.”
Tracy Chou. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Getty Images)
Chou had spent her twenties working at places such as Google, Facebook, and Quora before landing at Pinterest as an engineer, and as she expanded her networks she started informally keeping track of the number of female engineers at tech firms. It was deeply ironic, she thought, that in a data-driven industry that prides itself on running experiments, performing A/B testing, and measuring outcomes, there was no official, easily accessible data about the number of women actually working in the field. And so she wrote:
As an engineer and someone who’s had ‘data-driven design’ browbeaten into me by Silicon Valley, I can’t imagine trying to solve a problem where the real metrics, the ones we’re setting our goals against, are obfuscated. Vanity metrics are dangerous; just pointing to the happy numbers, like those on Grace Hopper conference attendance, doesn’t do anything except make people feel good while the real issues fester, unaddressed.
With her employer’s blessing, she then shared the number of female engineers at Pinterest— 11 out of 89 — and encouraged her readers to do the same. They did. Within a week, employees from over 50 companies had submitted data, including Dropbox, Rent the Runway, Reddit, and Mozilla—and the companies kept on coming.
Chou’s piece came amidst a groundswell of attention to diversity in tech, as pressure mounted for the biggest, most prominent tech firms to stop shielding their diversity numbers. At the time of her post, Twitter was under fire for having a board made up entirely of white men. (Twitter soon sought to correct that problem with the appointment of Marjorie Scardino.) In March 2014, Jesse Jackson announced his intent to demand more inclusiveness from Valley companies. Meanwhile, Mother Jones’s Josh Harkinson had filed yet more FOIA requests with the Labor Department asking to see the top 10 tech firms’ demographics.
So the pressure was on. And though Chou hasn’t been able to confirm it, she heard through the grapevine that her October 2013 post made it all the way to Larry Page’s desk and helped prompt Google’s decision to come clean.
In May 2014 Google caved, releasing a report that was just about as bad as everyone had feared. It showed that the company’s overall workforce was predominantly male and white — 70 and 61 percent, respectively. The picture only got uglier when broken down by technical and leadership roles: globally, women held 21 percent of leadership roles and 17 percent of technical roles, while the percentages of black and Hispanic people in leadership and technical roles in the US were at or below 2 percent. As Apple and Facebook followed suit, along with Twitter, Amazon, Yahoo and others, it became clear that these patterns were industry-wide: the tech world was exactly as white and male as everyone had suspected.
Today, employees from more than 250 companies have submitted data to Chou’s repository. Public diversity reports have become more routine. But the numbers themselves have yet to change at Silicon Valley’s biggest, most powerful companies. At Apple, the percentage of women in technical roles crept from 20 to 23 percent in two years, while the overall percentage of black employees moved from 7 to 9 percent, and the percentage of Hispanic employees rose one point to 12 percent. At Facebook, the number of women in technical roles inched from 15 to 17 percent, while the overall percentages of black and Hispanic employees remained stuck at 2 and 4 percent, respectively. Google saw similarly little progress, with no change in its overall percentages of black and Hispanic workers and a two percent increase in the number of women in technical roles. The figure below denotes current racial data graphically.
Current representation at nine prominent tech firms, according to their most recently published data.
It’s not quite as bleak as the percentages might imply — after all, at companies with workforces in the tens of thousands (or, in Apple’s case, hundreds of thousands), a change of a few percentage points affect hundreds or even thousands of underrepresented employees — and to some diversity advocates, any progress is worth cheering. “I think that the scenario of some dramatic change where somehow the overall industry percentage jumps 5 percent in one year is highly unlikely,” says Elizabeth Ames, a senior vice president at the Anita Borg Institute, which runs the annual Grace Hopper Celebration. “I think you just have to do the math to realize that is probably not in the cards.” She acknowledges that the dearth of candidates will make dramatic change difficult for years to come: “It didn’t happen overnight that we went from 37 percent to 18 percent [of women graduating with computer science degrees], and it’s not going to happen overnight to go back there.”
Yet advocates are running out of patience with Silicon Valley and its culture. Organizations such as Code 2040 point out that while black and Hispanic students are graduating with nearly 18 percent of computer science degrees, far fewer are making it into the top tech companies, a fact that points to flawed hiring processes at the least and outright bias at the worst. Facebook received vitriolic backlash this summer when, in publishing its 2016 diversity report, it said that “it has become clear that at the most fundamental level, appropriate representation in technology or any other industry will depend upon more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system:” Slack’s Leslie Miley called that defense a “fucking insult,” while hundreds of others angrily took to Twitter with the hashtag #FBNoExcuses. The message was clear: in the year 2016, tech companies can’t shirk their responsibilities when it comes to creating diverse and inclusive work environments.
“The pipeline problem as it’s described and the tech culture problem are both products of deep and wide systemic bias,” says freada kapor klein, a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech. While the quantity of tweets and blog posts acknowledging the multifaceted nature of the problem has swelled over the past few years, the numbers of underrepresented minorities in tech have barely budged — a fact Klein calls “appalling.”
Chou, meanwhile, has seen her career path take a sharp turn. She left Pinterest in June and has joined forces with Klein to hasten Silicon Valley’s cultural change. In collaboration with Erica Joy Baker, bethayne McKinney Blount, Laura I. Gómez, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Ellen Pao, and Susan Wu, they’ve launched Project Include, which offers 87 open-source, customizable recommendations for diversifying companies. They suggest specific action items—such as making HR one of a startup’s first 25 hires and tracking when underrepresented employees quit and why—rather than tactics that look good on the surface but aren’t necessarily proven to have lasting impact, such as sponsoring a conference on diversity or launching a breast milk delivery service.
Chou points to startups like Pinterest, with its approximately 500 employees, as being especially important, because they can achieve a balanced mix more easily than the biggest companies. “Especially the ones that are consumer-facing and really sexy and have so much attention, they could have disproportionate impact in this diversity and inclusion conversation,” she says. In two years, Pinterest increased its percentage of women engineers from 12 percent to 19, far more than any of its larger peers. At a company of Pinterest’s size, Chou points out, “the numbers are not trivial, but also not so large that they’re impossible to move.”
But let’s not forget the companies that still keep their diversity figures under wraps. Obvious outliers include Uber, Lyft, and Snapchat. They declined to share their demographic data when contacted for this piece—or, in Lyft’s case, ignored the request altogether. Google, Facebook, Amazon and the others are nowhere near achieving inclusiveness. But at least they’ve joined the conversation.