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Joi Sears headshot

Five Strategies to Promote Diversity in Tech

Words by Joi Sears

Diversity in the tech community is a hot topic these days as several industry giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google try to shed the unfavorable public perception of being a boys club. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is made up predominately of straight, white, men. However, there are several tech companies who are aware of the lack of diversity and have made a commitment to undergo significant changes.

“We have a goal to reach every person on the planet.” Twitter stated in an article published on their blog last year. “We believe that goal is more attainable with a team that understands and represents different cultures and backgrounds.”

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Inc. echoed this sentiment stating, “Diversity is critical to innovation and it is essential to Apple’s future. We aspire to do more than just make our company as diverse as the talent available to hire. We must address the broad underlying challenges, offer new opportunities, and create a future generation of employees as diverse as the world around us.”

In an effort to fuel this movement towards a more diverse tech industry, one startup is partnering with innovative companies like Pinterest and Airbnb to help build a stronger, more diverse organizations. Paradigm works with companies to cultivate and leverage the power of diversity by using an innovative, iterative, and metrics-driven approach. The company, spearheaded by CEO Joelle Emerson, uses both quantitative and qualitative analysis to identify potential patterns of biases and disparities.

Emerson has identified five strategies that she believes tech companies should engage in to build more diverse and inclusive organizations.

1. Founders and leaders: get involved

Diversity initiatives are far more successful when a leader within the organization plays an active role. An increasing number of startups have individuals or teams thinking about diversity, which is a step in the right direction. However, these roles are often filled by recruiters with a passion for diversity who often lack the necessary support and resources to make meaningful changes company-wide.

For example, when Etsy decided to boost its gender diversity, former CTO Kellan Ellitot-McCrea was involved in restructuring the company’s recruiting and hiring approach. After a year, Etsy had grown the number of female engineers by almost 500 percent.

Emerson recommends that at least one C-suite level executive, and preferably a founder in new companies, should be directly involved in these efforts, developing company goals around diversity, supporting and rewarding employees who dedicate their time to building a diverse organization and ensuring accountability.

2. Collect better data

The release of diversity data from a number of tech companies in 2014 helped to quantify the industry’s problem and sparked a broader conversation about solving it. However, despite this move towards transparency, there is often a reluctance to collect more meaningful and granular data related to diversity. Without good data, it’s nearly impossible to know which processes in an organization are most inhibiting diversity and where strategies should be targeted to produce the best outcomes.

In general companies should be looking at the following areas: how candidates are attracted and recruited; how work is assigned; how performance is evaluated; how much employees are paid; how employees advance in the company and when they leave; and how happy employees are. Embedding these data-collection measures early will make it far easier for companies to identify and address barriers to building a diverse organization.

3. Expand your network

Emerson explains that tech companies often attribute their lack of diversity solely to the lack of diversity in computer science and computer engineering programs where most hiring comes from. But this pipeline problem doesn’t account for the significant gap between the percentage of African-American and Hispanic graduates in computer science and computer engineering (11 percent from top research universities alone) and the representation of those groups in technical roles in Silicon Valley (around 5 percent). Nor does it explain the diversity gap in non-technical roles.

Until the pipeline is more diverse, tech companies should prioritize finding and hiring diverse employees from sources outside their traditional networks. The process most companies use to find candidates — relying on informal social networks and referrals from current employees — is a great approach for finding more employees like the ones you already have. For a company that’s not yet diverse, this can perpetuate the problem. Companies committed to diversity need to make a conscious effort to build more diverse networks and find these candidates.

4. Think deliberately about your hiring process

There is a common perception among startups that the hiring process is designed to attract and select the best person for a given role without regard for gender, race, or ethnicity, and that efforts to hire more diverse candidates require changing standards. This is based on the flawed assumption that the hiring process is purely based on merit. However, In the overwhelming majority of companies, even despite best intentions, it’s not.

Social and psychological factors like unconscious bias and stereotypes can hinder success in the recruiting process for diverse candidates who apply. Unconscious bias can lead interviewers to unintentionally apply different standards to diverse and non-diverse candidates. Awareness of these issues, and a focus on strategies that minimize their impact, will lead to more effective recruiting of diverse candidates and better hiring decisions overall.

5. Create a company culture that supports diverse employees

The high attrition rate among women in tech and the lack of diversity in leadership roles in tech companies indicate that there are obstacles to success for women and people of color in the industry. Building a diverse organization requires a focus not only on recruiting diverse candidates, but on creating a culture that welcomes and cultivates diverse employees.

Creating such a culture should include establishing explicit structures that support diverse employees, like better paid leave for new parents — a benefit that significantly reduced women’s attrition at Google.  Instead of waiting to be in the position that larger tech companies are in now — investing heavily in diversity to achieve only incremental change — startups should begin focusing on diversity today.


Image Credit: Flickr/Oregon Department of Transportation

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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