It is possible for Silicon Valley to become the meritocracy it claims to be. The first step is to admit that we’re not quite there–yet.
Earlier in this series, I’ve discussed the myth of Silicon Valley’s meritocracy and the ignorance and arrogance of its gatekeepers. The problem is real: There are hardly any female, black, or Hispanic CEOs or CTOs in the tech world. Innovation thrives on diversity; by excluding more than half of our population, we are greatly limiting economic growth.
So what can be done about it?
First, let’s stop pretending that the tech industry is a Nirvana and admit that there is a problem. All of us have biases, whether we realize it or not. Research published in September 2011 by the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) revealed that hidden biases within the I.T. workplace caused women and blacks to have negative workplace experiences far more often than their male and white counterparts. They were more likely to say they had difficulty balancing their work and family responsibilities, had been excluded by cliques, or were bullied. Not surprisingly, this leads to lower job satisfaction and increased turnover among members of these groups, creating a significant cost for employers and a loss of talent for the sector.
LPFI founder Freada Klein says that to fix the bias problem, corporations need to systematically collect anonymous data from employees on their perceptions and experiences. Otherwise, she says, there is no way for hidden biases to become apparent. She says that companies need to create a workplace culture in which differences are respected and people can speak up about inadvertent, unintended bias or exclusion. A critical mass of underrepresented groups is important; an ‘only’ will always be in the spotlight. It’s obviously unfair to ask one person to represent an entire gender or race, and the pressure to do so has been shown to lead to stilted performance. Recognition of each person should be as an individual, not just ‘the black engineer’ or ‘the woman engineer,’ Freada says.
Companies should always hire the most qualified candidates regardless of race and gender. But because of hidden biases, they don’t always make the right decisions. Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, says that companies should interview at least one woman and member of a minority group for every open position. Simply ensuring that recruiting efforts include a diverse slate of candidates can substantially affect team composition, she says. And there should be at least one woman and minority-group member on the hiring team. Academic research has shown that people tend to hire those who are similar to them. The current demographics of the hiring team and company can therefore influence the outcome of hiring.
In the startup world, success is all about networks and mentors. Learning from people with experience and getting introductions to investors and customers can make a huge difference. This is where the success of Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley provides valuable lessons. By establishing their own mentoring networks and actively helping each other, Indians were able to transcend discrimination and stereotypes and become the dominant group of immigrant company founders. Despite constituting only 6% of Silicon Valley’s working population in 2000, this group founded 15.5% of the Valley’s startups in 1995–2005. The first generation of successful founders took it upon themselves to teach and mentor the next generation. This is a model that all other groups can emulate.
The venture capitalists that startups meet with have their own biases. These firms are dominated by white males—mostly from elite institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, and Cornell. The interns there are recruited from the same schools. These firms should make a conscious effort to recruit from second- and third-tier colleges—particularly those with large minority populations. And yes, they will find extremely bright, capable people from these schools. This diversity in VC firms will help change perceptions and stereotypes and will open the door for members of groups that are always left out.
And let’s not forget the role that Mom and Dad play. Most of the successful women I have interviewed talked about the important role that their parents had played in encouraging them to pursue science and engineering and succeed in a male-dominated industry. They said that this made a big difference in their motivations and ambitions.
Despite all the issues I have raised, I still believe that Silicon Valley is the most open, inclusive place in the world. There are hurdles. But once you cross these, the Valley readily accepts you. I know of no evidence of deliberate intent to exclude people on such arbitrary bases as their sex or color. Rather than arising from conscious prejudices, the bias that is rife in the Valley is based on simple ignorance. This can be fixed—and groups that are left out can share the economic bounties that the tech industry offers.