More Than A Pipeline Problem: In Search Of Diversity In Silicon Valley

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Wall graffiti at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. The company released a diversity report last month showing that 70 percent of employees are male; African-Americans comprise 2 percent of it workforce. (AFP/Getty Images)
Wall graffiti at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. The company released a diversity report last month showing that 70 percent of employees are male; African-Americans comprise 2 percent of it workforce. (AFP/Getty Images)


Silicon Valley is a place that operates on data — hard facts and numbers.

Last month, the tech giant Facebook released a report on diversity among its workers — and the numbers weren't good.

The company reported that nearly 70 percent of its employees are men; 57 percent are white; Hispanics represent just 4 percent. Black employees comprised just 2 percent of their workforce.

Facebook is hardly the only Silicon Valley firm struggling to diversify. Diversity reports from Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and others show a tech industry with demographics that are out of whack with the nation and tech consumers.

It's a serious problem that tech companies are now paying attention to in a more public way.

Angelica Coleman is the development relations manager on the platform marketing team at Zendesk.
Angelica Coleman is the development relations manager on the platform marketing team at Zendesk.

This week on For the Record: Fixing the sameness of Silicon Valley. We speak with a tech worker who left her job at a major Silicon Valley firm because she found it inhospitable to women of color, and with two other women who are trying to fix the diversity problem from different angles.

Angelica Coleman, development relations manager on the platform marketing team at Zendesk

Coleman grew up outside Boston, and after college a lot of her friends started working as software engineers. They told her what a cool industry it was, and that was it: She wanted a career in tech.

Coleman got a job at a small tech firm in Boston and shortly thereafter it was bought by file-hosting giant Dropbox. Coleman moved to the Bay Area to work at headquarters as an administrative assistant. Immediately, she felt out of step with the place.

She estimates that only 12 out of Dropbox's 1,200-plus employees were black. That meant that when she went to lunch with her white co-workers, she felt out of place.

Laura Gomez, who runs her own recruiting software company, says when worked at Twitter, "I hated that no one looked like me."
Laura Gomez, who runs her own recruiting software company, says when worked at Twitter, "I hated that no one looked like me."

"Most of the conversations were around, like, white beauty products," Coleman says. "I have no idea what those are like. Tanning solutions — no idea what that's like. Their family vacation houses in Palm Springs — no idea what that's like. Never once asked me, 'Hey, Angie, what did you do this weekend?' "

Her bosses started to notice.

"The head admin would sit me down and say, 'I don't think you are engaging enough with the team. Some of the team members feel like you're not trying hard enough to be friends with them,' " she says. "It was actually almost the opposite."

Professionally, Coleman thought she was doing well. But when she told the higher-ups she wanted to break out of her admin role and move up, she says she was told she'd have to go somewhere else.

She can't say for sure it was because of her race, but she watched as her white peers moved up. As a black woman, she didn't have anyone to turn to in order to sort out what felt like unfair treatment.

Maxine Williams, director of diversity for Facebook, doesn't want employees to avoid talking about diversity just to be polite. "I want you to see these things as assets," she says.
Maxine Williams, director of diversity for Facebook, doesn't want employees to avoid talking about diversity just to be polite. "I want you to see these things as assets," she says.

"People, especially white people, do not like talking about race," she says. "It's uncomfortable for everyone. Luckily, if you are white, you get to avoid talking about race as much as you want, because you don't have to. But as someone who is minority, race is an everyday part of their life. Not having a single person inside of a company to ever express any of those feelings, pain, questions, anything, it's extremely difficult."

Laura Gomez, CEO and founder of Atypica, a recruiting software company

Gomez thinks about these issues every day. She was an early employee at Twitter, and now she runs a company whose sole mission is to fix the diversity problem in Silicon Valley.

Gomez says the whole industry felt impenetrable to her.

"I hated that no one looked like me," she says.

Now tech companies are making their workforce demographics public and hiring diversity managers. Gomez says those positions must have support to be effective.

For instance, "Are you giving the diversity head a budget?" she says. "Are they working within all organizations, not only recruiting? Do they have the leverage to make sure that they are making the changes that need to be made?"

Maxine Williams, director of diversity for Facebook

Williams believes that her bosses are invested in change. But since she joined the company in 2013, Facebook's diversity numbers have barely budged.

The biggest obstacle, she says, is the "pipeline" problem — the argument that not enough diverse candidates are qualified for the jobs.

"Something like 4.5 percent of people graduating with computer science degrees are black," Waters says.

Gomez fundamentally disagrees.

"It is not a pipeline issue whatsoever," she says.

The responsibility for finding diverse candidates lies with the companies, she says — especially with recruiters, who are guilty of hiring people who look just like they do and come from the same places.

"One person will refer the person that they went to school with, and that school happens to be Stanford," Gomez says. "And then that person happens to refer another person that happens to go to the same school."

However, both Gomez and Williams agree on this: It's no use making an effort to recruit a diverse workforce without the culture to support them.

"I don't want people to feel that we have to be a place that uses 'blind' as a suffix," Williams says. "Where you have to say, I'm color-blind or I'm gender-blind or I'm sexual orientation-blind, in order to see people as your colleagues, in order to feel like you're being polite. I want you to see these things as assets."

All three say change is hard, but not impossible. Williams says the biggest roadblock is sensitivity.

"We've done a lot of work to get people to understand it's OK to be vulnerable," she says. "To say what you don't know; to with good intent seek to understand the life of the other. So I think because people are sensitive to being considered exclusive or racist or sexist it stops them from opening up to a place where they can learn and do better."

Coleman is happy at her job at Zendesk, a software development firm in San Francisco, a firm she landed at after leaving Dropbox.

"It took a while to build my confidence back up and remind myself that no, you are a badass. You do so much. You are amazing," she says.

We reached out to Dropbox but they didn't respond to our request for comment about Angelica Coleman's story but they did release a statement earlier this month and in it they said "diversity is a critical issue for the company." And they're sad to hear a former employee feels otherwise. They do not think her account is an accurate reflection of the company culture.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And this is For the Record.

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MARTIN: Silicon Valley is a place that operates on data - hard facts and numbers. Last month, Facebook released a report on diversity at the company, and the numbers weren't good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Facebook says it has some work to do when it comes to workplace diversity. The company reported today that nearly 70 percent of its employees are men, and 57 percent of them are white. Hispanics represent just 4 percent, and African-Americans comprise 2 percent.

MARTIN: But Facebook is hardly the only Silicon Valley firm struggling to diversify its workforce. Reports from Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and more all show a tech industry with demographics that are way out of whack with the nation and tech consumers. On the HBO sitcom "Silicon Valley," it's a frequent joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SILICON VALLEY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) These programmers - there's always a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair and then an East Indian guy. It's like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

MARTIN: But it is a serious problem that tech companies are now paying attention to in a more public way. For the Record today, fixing the sameness of Silicon Valley.

Our three voices, a tech worker who left her job at a major Silicon Valley firm because she found it inhospitable to women of color and two people trying to fix the diversity problem from different angles. But first, Angelica Coleman.

ANGELICA COLEMAN: I currently work at Zendesk as the developer relations manager on the platform marketing team.

MARTIN: She grew up outside Boston, and after college, a lot of her friends started working as software engineers. Conversations were peppered with references to hacking and coding. She asked questions. They told her what a cool industry it was, and that was it. She wanted a career in tech. Coleman got a job at a small firm in Boston, and shortly thereafter, it was bought out by Dropbox. She moved to the Bay Area to work at headquarters as an administrative assistant. Immediately, she felt out of step with the place.

How many other black people worked at Dropbox when you were there?

COLEMAN: I mean, from looking around and counting (laughter) - 'cause that's all, I guess, I could say - I think there were 12.

MARTIN: Out of...

COLEMAN: And the company is just over, like, 1,200.

MARTIN: Which meant that when she went out to lunch with her white co-workers, she felt left out.

COLEMAN: Most of the conversations were around, like, white beauty products. I have no idea what those are like - tanning solutions, no idea what that's like. Their family vacation houses, like, in Palm Springs - no idea what that's like. Never once asking me, like, hey, Angie, what did you do this weekend?

MARTIN: She felt isolated, and Coleman's bosses started to notice.

COLEMAN: The head admin would sit me down and say, I don't think you're engaging enough with the team. Some of the team members feel like you're not trying hard enough to, like, be friends with them, which was in no way what I was trying to do. It was actually almost the opposite.

MARTIN: Professionally, Coleman thought she was doing pretty well. But when she told the higher-ups she wanted to break out of her admin role and move up...

COLEMAN: I was told no. I was told I was not performing. I was told if I want to be anything other than the admin, I need to go somewhere else. And it was just really, really disappointing and disheartening.

MARTIN: And did any of that have to do with the fact that you were African-American?

COLEMAN: So I can't say for sure, like, if anything had to do with the fact that I was African-American. Like, he never said anything to me, like, you are black; this is what you are allowed to do. You know, people aren't that overt.

MARTIN: But she saw her white peers moving up, and as a black woman she didn't have anyone to turn to in order to sort out what felt like unfair treatment.

COLEMAN: People, especially white people, do not like talking about race. It is uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for everyone. And luckily, if you're white, you get to avoid talking about race as much as you want because you can just - you don't have to. But as someone who's a minority, race is every day part of their life. Not having a single person inside of a company to ever express any of those, like, feelings, pain, questions, anything - it's extremely difficult.

MARTIN: Those are the kinds of concerns Laura Gomez thinks about every day. Gomez was an early employee at Twitter. Now she runs her own company.

LAURA GOMEZ: I'm the CEO and founder of Atypica, a recruiting software company.

MARTIN: And its sole mission is to fix the diversity problem in Silicon Valley, which, for Gomez, is very personal. The whole industry felt impenetrable to her.

GOMEZ: Totally hated tech (laughter).

MARTIN: Really?

GOMEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: What did you hate about it?

GOMEZ: I hated that no one looked like me (laughter).

MARTIN: Laura Gomez says things are starting to change. More tech companies are making their workforce demographics public and hiring diversity managers. I asked her if she thinks these new positions can make a difference, and she answered with questions of her own.

GOMEZ: Are you giving the diversity head a budget? Are they working within all organizations, not only recruiting? Do they have the leverage to make sure that they are making the changes that need to be made?

MARTIN: Which brings us to Maxine Williams.

MAXINE WILLIAMS: My name is Maxine Williams, and I am the director of diversity at Facebook.

MARTIN: She believes her bosses are invested in change. But in the time since Williams joined Facebook in 2013, the company's diversity numbers have barely budged.

You say people were on board; they understood why it was important. But at the same time, the numbers didn't match that revelation.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think there are different things you have to think about when one considers why those particular numbers were not different.

MARTIN: Williams says diversifying a workforce is about more than gender and race. So she says those numbers don't tell the whole story. The biggest obstacle, says Williams, is the so-called pipeline problem, the argument that there aren't enough diverse candidates who are qualified for these kinds of jobs.

WILLIAMS: Something like 4.5 percent of people graduating with computer science degrees are black.

MARTIN: This is where Laura Gomez fundamentally disagrees.

GOMEZ: It is not a pipeline issue whatsoever.

MARTIN: She thinks the responsibility lies with the companies, especially recruiters, who are guilty of hiring people who look just like they do and come from the same places.

GOMEZ: One person will refer the person that they went to school with, and that school happens to be Stanford. And then that person happens to refer another person that happens to go to the same school.

MARTIN: However, both Gomez and Williams agree on this.

WILLIAMS: It's no use spending all this effort trying to get more diverse people at the company if you don't have a culture that can support them.

MARTIN: Again, this is Maxine Williams of Facebook.

WILLIAMS: I don't want people to feel that we have to be a place that uses blind as a suffix, where you have to say, I'm colorblind or I'm gender-blind or I'm sexual orientation-blind in order to see people as your colleagues, in order to feel like you're being polite, that I want you to see these things as assets.

MARTIN: Laura Gomez told us it might have to get worse before it gets better because these are delicate issues. People are going to feel attacked and offended. Maxine Williams agrees.

What's the biggest roadblock that you have faced?

WILLIAMS: I would say the biggest roadblock is sensitivity. We've done a lot of work to get people to understand it's OK to be vulnerable, to say what you don't know, to, with good intent, seek to understand the life of the other. So I think because people are sensitive to being considered exclusive or racist or sexist, it stops them from opening up to a place where they can learn and do better.

MARTIN: Change is hard, but it's not impossible. Angelica Coleman has landed in a good place. She left Dropbox, and now she's working happily at another tech firm.

COLEMAN: It took a while to sort of built my confidence back up and remind myself that, no, you are a bad ass. You do so much. You are amazing. You are 25 years old, and you graduated from a state school. And you majored in history, and, like, you are self-taught. And you're passionate, and you're motivated. And any company would be, like, extremely lucky and happy and proud to have you as an employee.

MARTIN: We reached out to Dropbox, but they didn't respond to our request for comment about Angelica Coleman's story. But they did release a statement earlier this month. And in it, they said diversity is a critical issue for the company, and they're sad to hear a former employee feels otherwise. They do not think her account is an accurate reflection of the company culture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.