How Silicon Valley Can Get Less White

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google. CREDIT: AP PHOTO — VINCENT YU
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google. CREDIT: AP PHOTO — VINCENT YU

“I’ve been in tech for 15 years, so I’ve been on a lot of interviews…I have never been on the verge of tears until I interviewed with Google,” developer and tech consultant Adria Richards told ThinkProgress. A double minority in tech — a woman of color — Richards didn’t get the job.

Silicon Valley has a major diversity problem. After years of resistance, Google publicly released its employee diversity numbers earlier last week, showing how bad the problem really was: The report showed only 30 percent of the Internet giant’s employees worldwide are women and just 35 percent in the United States aren’t white, with Asians making up 30 percent of non-whites at the company.


Google’s figures mimic what’s going on in the predominately white and male tech industry overall. The Internet giant admitted it had a long way to go to improve diversity, vowing to partner with colleges and continue to sponsor programs that encourage minorities and women to go into technology.

But to make the industry less homogeneous, Google and other Silicon Valley companies may have to take a more hands-on approach to tackle ethnic and gender disparities and boost recruitment. Here are three things the Internet giant can do to make their workforce a little more representative of the world around them:

1. Take a hard look at biases in the hiring process

Silicon Valley prizes its entrepreneurial culture, which is often described as a meritocracy where every one can succeed as long as they have the skills regardless of race, gender, class or background. That culture perpetuates the myth that there’s a clear path to the top for anyone who is highly skilled, while reinforcing the idea that if you don’t “make it,” you simply didn’t deserve it.


Google’s infamously complicated brainteasers for prospective candidates was one way the company’s fixation on “merit” shone through. When Richards interviewed for Google in 2012, her friends and roommates who worked for Google assured her the company stopped asking applicants kooky brainteasers that were meant to assess one’s problem solving ability. Yet Richards’ interviewer asked her to solve the “gold bar” question, which asks how would she pay an employee daily for a week using a gold bar that could be only cut twice.

Google officially revealed it stopped using the impossible-to-answer interview questions in 2013. Google’s vice president of people operations Lazlo Block told The New York Times that the brainteasers were a waste of time and only worked to make the applicant “feel smart,” or in Richards’ case like she didn’t belong. “I feel like he did that to unsettle me,” she told ThinkProgress. For years, Silicon Valley’s meritocratic ideology has shut out female and minority applicants, as hiring managers dismiss them because they “don’t fit the culture.” This indistinct sense of a “culture fit” has been come to be known as an unconscious bias that pervades the tech industry.

“One of the big problems I see is that people don’t want to admit they have bias,” said Richards, who was fired after tweeting a picture of two men making sexist remarks at a conference. When hiring, there’s a tendency to be biased toward someone who is similar to you, “’Oh he reminds me of my son! or ‘Oh! He reminds me of my nephew,’” she said.

Some tech CEOs have admitted the bias exists and disproportionately affects women while rewarding those who resemble Mark Zuckerberg: “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Y Combinator’s Paul Graham told The New York Times. “There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’ ”

Critics say the “culture fit” reasoning is little more than a cover for a certain sense of comfort that comes from familiarity. “Fit is the unquantifiable variable which makes you think that you will be able to gchat stupid gifs with someone, or drink craft brewed beer/fair trade coffee/single terroir wine with them, or bemoan the sorry state of the local sports franchise with them,” Aboubacar Ndiaye wrote in The Billfold. “It is the bro/homegirl quality, the affability borne out of similar backgrounds and similar experiences.”


The “culture fit” problem is then compounded by the sector’s beloved meritocracy — an ingrained bias-based power structure that promotes those who pass the culture tests and have the talent to rise through the ranks.

That natural inclination, however, causes well-qualified people to get overlooked. According to a Stanford University study on diversity and recruitment, 75 percent of whites and Asians held an “implicit bias in favor of whites compared to blacks.” And even when women are just as technically skilled at male candidates, they are far less likely to be hired.

“There needs to be a holistic system to remove the bias that people have been raised with in the culture and through the media,” Richards said. “No one wants to admit they have gender or racial bias, no one wants to point fingers, but you have to put people together and let them create their own individual experiences rather than pushing back against existing biases.”

As part of a multifaceted approach, Google plans on using an unconscious bias training program to address Google’s culture and ensure it is an unbiased and inclusive place to work. Even if people aren’t overtly sexist or racist, “we all have biases as a result of the way that we were raised, the communities we grew up in and what our experience are. But we’re not really equipped to address them,” a Google spokesperson told ThinkProgress.

The unconscious bias program would teach employees how to acknowledge their biases, learn that they’re not OK and how to overcome them. For example, if an all-male panel is giving a promotion review to a female colleague, Google’s training would have the panel take a step back and call attention to the fact that a group of men are evaluating a fellow female candidate. Having managers take tests such as Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) could help pinpoint any prejudices for age, race, gender, physical or mental ability, may also help close the hiring gap, Richards said.

2. Don’t just throw money at the problem

Donating millions of dollars to schools, programs and organizations is usually the way companies show their commitment to diversity. Google has donated $40 million to programs designed to bring more women into tech. But it’s not always enough.


The best way to get new people to join a company is to “show up,” and get involved with the people you sponsor, people who don’t look like you, Richards said. Just like job seekers network to make connections and get job leads, companies like Google should encourage employees to do the same thing through volunteer work.

Mentoring with organizations dedicated to diversifying tech, such as Code2040, Girls Who Code or Black Girls Code, helps expose tech power players to groups they might not otherwise encounter in their social circles, neighborhoods or at work.

Tech companies often defend their lack of diversity by pointing to the lack of qualified candidates. Indeed, only 41 percent of science and engineering graduates are women. Even fewer enter computer science; 20 percent of high school girls take the advanced placement exam or major in the field in college. Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code aim to shrink that disparity by specifically working with young girls and women not only to get them interested in tech but to give them skills early on that can help them compete. For example, Black Girls Code hosts hackathons across the country that teach girls in elementary and high school how to code, work in teams and work through their ideas.

Code2040 aims to close Silicon Valley’s racial gap through fellowships for blacks and Latinos, who only make up 4 percent of computer science college graduates. By volunteering with similar organizations, employees create experiences — even if it’s not tech related — and break down biases by stepping outside of their comfort zone. That, in turn, fosters a more inclusive culture on the job, Richards said.

“Sponsoring projects and programs is great but showing up is even better,” she said. It means more to people for companies to take a genuine interest and get involved with events and volunteer efforts. That way companies “build an authentic bridge” of trust and communication linking them to isolated communities.

3. Look beyond the Ivy League

Despite the myth of meritocracy, the true keys to success in Silicon Valley are the right connections and a pedigreed education. Reuters found that 70 percent of tech startup founders from 2011 to 2013 were plucked from stereotypical Silicon Valley networks: They graduated from either Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University and Harvard University, worked at a well-connected small tech, and then at a big firm in a senior positions.

The skills, test prep classes, and tuition fees required to attend the Ivy League and other top-tier schools mean those tech recruiting pools are already concentrated with privilege. At Harvard, for example, about 45 percent of students come from families making $200,000 or more a year. The wealthy are also more able to afford to work unpaid or low paying internships wth startups, and can rely on family money to fund their own. Even if they don’t have family money, a prestigious education buys access to networks of a small group of money men and venture capitalists, that fund most of Silicon Valley startups, according to Reuters.

Recruiting outside super-elite schools could help Google and other tech companies improve diversity. Broadening the recruiting pool to state schools would help level the playing field. Google said it plans to do this.

“Roughly 35 percent of black computer science graduates come from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) but there’s no pathway to getting picked up by companies like Google,” the Google spokesperson said.

The company also plans to help create more computer science advanced placement (AP) programs and that students enrolled in those classes aren’t all white. Most AP computer science courses are in affluent white schools, and even when they’re not, the students are still all white, the Google spokesperson said.

But wealthy or not, even female and non-white grads from top-tier schools worry more about fitting in than whether they’ll get the job. While giving a talk to black engineers and science majors at Stanford University, a student asked Richards, “What happens if I get hired and I don’t listen to the same to type of music [as my peers]?”

“The fear of not fitting in is big,” Richards said. To change that, “everyone needs to do their part,” to make sure there’s sufficient cultural meshing as more women and minorities are brought on board.