Twitter’s diversity report lays bare Silicon Valley’s pale male problem

Odd one out

Odd one out

The lack of gender and racial (or ‘ethnic’ in US-parlance) diversity in the technology sector is amplified in Silicon Valley. Obviously it’s more noticeable at the new breed of US tech giants, especially as they disclose more and more detail after going public.

But, having overwhelmingly white, male engineers is a problem in the US, the UK, most of Europe, even in some emerging markets like South Africa. It’s particularly acute in the US given how the overall US population demographics have shifted (dramatically) over the past three decades. White Americans were 80% of the population in 1980. By 2012, that number had dropped to 63% and in another 20 years, it’ll drop to below 50%.

Twitter’s diversity report, published earlier this month, shows just how much work US tech companies have to do to become more representative. The blog post by Janet Van Huysse, the company’s Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion (right?!) manages to be blunt and yet talk a good game too.

She says that “it makes good business sense that Twitter employees are representative of the vast and varied backgrounds of our users around the world” and that “it makes good business sense to be more diverse as a workforce – research shows that more diverse teams make better decisions, and companies with women in leadership roles produce better financial results. But we want to be more than a good business; we want to be a business that we are proud of.”

Van Huysse also admits “we are keenly aware that Twitter is part of an industry that is marked by dramatic imbalances in diversity — and we are no exception.”

70% of Twitter’s global workforce is male. In tech roles, that number is nine out of every 10. Even in leadership (typically easiest to bring into line with a few targeted hires), the percentage of women lags that of its overall workforce.

When it comes to race (‘ethnicity’), the lack of diversity is as bad. 59% of Twitter’s US employees are white. A further 29% are Asian. Only 12% are other minorities (2% are black). In tech roles, only 8% are not white or Asian. Leadership is even worse, at half of that (4%).

Beyond Twitter

But, again, this is not just a Twitter problem. According to its diversity figures, 69% of Facebook’s global workforce is male (a number that jumps to 85% for tech roles). The racial mix of its staff in the US is (also) strikingly similar to Twitter’s, at 57% White and 34% Asian.

But neither Twitter nor Facebook move beyond identifying the problem and making tons of promises to ‘build more diverse’ organisations. (Quite why all of these companies have released gender numbers for their global workforces and ethnicity numbers for US workers only is another question altogether).

Google (believe it or not, given how secretive it is about certain parts of its business) is far more honest in publishing details around the diversity of its organisation, and it digs deeper too: “We’ve always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it’s time to be candid about the issues.”

Google’s headline numbers aren’t far off either Twitter’s or Facebook’s: its global workforce is 70% male, while in the US, 61% of employees are white and 30% Asian.

And then it nails the root of the problem: “There are lots of reasons why technology companies like Google struggle to recruit and retain women and minorities. For example, women earn roughly 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics each make up under 10 percent of US college grads and each collect fewer than 10 percent of degrees in CS majors. So we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in education.”

It breaks that number down further: according to the US National Science Foundation, the number of degrees black and Hispanic students earn in Computer Science majors is 8% and 6% respectively.

Put simply, these companies cannot make their workforces more diverse and representative if universities and colleges aren’t producing a diverse stream of graduates. And even if there’s significant effort at transforming the pipeline of grads now, the results won’t be seen for at least a decade or two. (While these examples are all US-centric, similar situations exist elsewhere globally).

No wonder there’s a concerted effort at forcing immigration reform in the US, FWD.us led by tech founders, entrepreneurs and executives like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Drew Houston, Ruchi Sanghvi, Aditya Agrawal, Reid Hoffman, Sean Parker and Ron Conway. Perhaps efforts such as these will succeed.

Perhaps the long list of programmes detailed by Twitter, Facebook and Google to build more diverse workforces will start to make inroads. But what if the companies’ diversity reports next year show little to no improvement?

Image: Dade Freeman via Flickr.

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