The Problem With Achieving Diversity

When tech giants including Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Facebook disclosed their employee demographics last summer, the results were discouraging. Workforces were largely white and male. Female and minority employees were scarce. Diversity was clearly lacking.

Some tech companies have managed to tackle at least one of these diversity issues: Airbnb, Pinterest, Etsy, Lyft and others boast high numbers of female employees. But despite progress toward bridging the gender gap, many tech companies still struggle to develop ethnic diversity.

For example, Airbnb’s federal equal employment opportunity report for 2014 revealedthat while black and Hispanic workers make up 12 and 16 percent of the U.S. workforce, respectively, only 9 percent of Airbnb’s U.S. staff identifies as black or Hispanic.

“We don’t think our current figures are acceptable, and we want to share these numbers as we actively work to improve them through a variety of efforts," an Airbnb spokesperson told the Verge.

So why might companies be making progress in gender diversity, but not racial diversity?

Melissa Williams, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, said it largely comes down to the reputation of a particular company or industry.

“They develop reputations I think they are not necessarily aware of within communities and subcommunities,” Williams said. “Women ‘know’ what companies among them are good to work for. These reputations are sometimes deserved and sometimes not deserved, but they’re difficult to overcome, and that creates an obstacle for a company.”

Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer for Walgreen Co., said the hiring process also plays a large role in how diverse a company’s workforce is.

“The overarching challenge I’ve seen is this is largely perceived as a talent acquisition issue,” Pemberton said. “In other words, there are workforces that are homogeneous in race or gender because hiring managers don’t know how to hire or perhaps have inherent and innate bias against women and people of color.”

Pemberton said implementing diversity and inclusion policies such as unconscious bias training can help ensure that a company is not limiting its growth through preference for specific types of employees. Making sure employees feel welcome and as if they have opportunities to grow is also important to acquiring and retaining diverse talent, Pemberton said.

In the tech industry in particular, Williams said a culture exists that discourages women and minorities from STEM fields even before they reach the workforce, making it difficult for companies to build pipelines for greater employee diversity.

“The evidence suggests that women have interest in these fields, minorities have interest in these fields, and then turn away after they take their first core class, for example, because of the sense that this isn’t a welcoming environment to me, that it’s super competitive, that my voice isn’t heard, that I don’t get called on, that this is not the kind of place where I’m supposed to be,” Williams said.

If tech companies are doing a better job of reaching women than minorities, Williams said that is largely because of the specific initiatives those companies are enacting to change their reputations and achieve greater diversity.

“It comes down to what their reputation is,” Williams said. “It’s possible that they’ve acquired a sense that this is a good place for women but they haven’t acquired a reputation that this is a good place for people of color, and that may or may not be deserved, but it’s up to the organization to communicate those messages effectively.”

While there are ways to specifically appeal to female employees — childcare and maternity leave policies, for examples — Williams said that for the most part, the same types of diversity and inclusion initiatives can be used to reach out to both female and minority job candidates.

“Most of the things that people want in terms of people who feel underrepresented in a particular industry are the same,” Williams said. “There’s an issue of looking for a sense of belonging, a culture that’s welcoming and somewhat egalitarian, because that’s where I’m going to be able to make my mark and it can feel authentic.”