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Gender Diversity, Political Polarization and Facebook’s Discrimination Dilemma

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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Signs are finally beginning to emerge that the political and social polarization in the U.S. could be nearing the end of its long, painful upswing. Nevertheless, the chasm is still extreme, and it has taken on a gender-based aspect in recent years. That split could ripple out to impact the ability of some companies to attract top female talent in the rising generation of workers.

In particular, Facebook’s history with hate speech, Russian propaganda and conservative leadership has already inflicted a series of dents in its brand reputation, putting it at risk of losing a generation of women innovators.

Gender diversity and talent

Gender diversity is becoming a top goal in tech fields, as leading companies compete for the best and brightest innovators on a global scale.

Businesses in more traditional fields are also finding that additional time spent on recruiting and training women is well spent. The waste hauling and recycling company Republic Services, for example, noted improvements in employee performance and customer satisfaction when it recruited female school bus drivers into its formerly all-male fleet.

On the flip side, industries that continue to be dominated by males are facing near-term talent shortfalls. The U.S. coal industry is one example of a male-dominated industry in steep decline. America’s oil and gas sector is also facing a gender diversity problem, despite the ongoing boom in domestic production.

Gender diversity and the millennial generation

In some respects, it may seem that Facebook has the gender diversity issue in hand. The company says it has recently made significant strides in recruiting women

However, the state of gender diversity among fossil energy companies in the U.S. provides some insight into the recruiting issues Facebook may encounter moving forward.

The problem for fossil energy companies is that talented millennials who are interested in energy-related careers have a much wider range of choices today than a generation ago: wind, solar, energy efficiency and energy storage. These alternatives resonate sharply along the political divide, with leadership in one party undercutting climate science and staking out ground as the champion of fossil fuels while the other advocates for climate action and policies including the Green New Deal.

The intersection of politics, energy, climate change and women in the workforce has also rippled into other fields. For example, a woman was a key advocate among the Amazon employees who launched an “unprecedented” open letter in support of a shareholder proposal on climate action.

Facebook and the political divide

Insofar as Facebook’s recent travails reflect the same political divide, the company also risks alienating women—not just current platform users, but future workers.

In the area of advertising discrimination, for example, progressive activists won a major battle last year when Facebook agreed to conduct a third-party civil rights audit of its advertising practices for the first time. 

Last week, though, Mother Jones took a deep dive into the subject and described how the company is diluting the civil rights issue by simultaneously conducting an investigation into alleged discrimination against conservative voices on its platform.

In addition, the company is still dealing with blowback from its role in amplifying Russian propaganda during the 2016 election cycle, which resulted in a presidential administration dominated by extremist positions on immigration, health care and other issues of concern to women.

More trouble for Facebook

Facebook’s brand reputation is already on shaky ground, and it has taken several other major hits in recent days.

Another blow came earlier this week, when NBC News published a long-form investigative piece accusing the company of deploying users’ private data as “bargaining chips” to reward “friends” and hurt “enemies.”

On top of that, this week the high-profile New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly announced that she was dropping her personal Facebook account. The announcement came on the heels of President Trump’s vitriolic criticism of fellow freshman Representative Ilhan Omar.

The move was significant because, for many, Ocasio-Cortez occupies the confluence of the millennial generation, social tolerance, gender-defined political preferences and gender diversity in the workforce, including congressional staff on Capitol Hill.

Describing Ocasio-Cortez’s decision for CNN, business journalist Rachel Metz reported that “she called social media a ‘public health risk’ that results in issues like increased isolation, depression, addiction, escapism and anxiety.”

Metz also described her own disconnection from Facebook after years of steady use. “It gave me connections to people I care about, but it took much more—not just my data, but my trust, too—and misused it,” Metz wrote.

Companies recognize that gender diversity is a bottom line benefit. However, the leap to tolerating misogynistic, xenophobic and racist thinking is a wide one. When the topic turns to political identity and hate speech, Facebook, social media companies - and in reality, all companies - need to be warned that the line between diversity and “catastrophically bad" judgement can be a very thin one. To that end, public announcements about diversity hiring efforts at a company must be matched by action and genuine progress on all fronts.

Image credit: Mimi Thian/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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