PBS GoogleThe technology industry has been fighting hard not to reveal race and gender diversity data — especially for its engineering teams — because it has a lot to be embarrassed about.  Data collected on Github showed that the percentage of female engineers at Qualcomm’s development center in Austin was 5.5 percent. At Dropbox it’s 6.3 percent, at Yelp 8.3 percent, at Airbnb 13.2 percent and 14.4 percent at Pinterest.

Google just revealed that 17 percent of its technology staff is female.  That is impressive compared with the rest of Silicon Valley, but not once you put it in the context of the available pool of female computer scientists.

In 1987, some 37 percent of the graduating computer-science class was female.  But, because of the unfair hurdles they face, women are getting discouraged from studying computer science, and the percentage had dropped to 18 percent by 2012.  Nonetheless, about a quarter of the pool of highly-experienced software developers is female.  A company such as Google — which has its choice of new graduates as well as of experienced engineers—should therefore have far greater diversity.

To Google’s credit, it has broken ranks with the technology industry by disclosing its gender-diversity numbers.  It is taking positive steps to correct its imbalance.  As well, its Google for Entrepreneurs group has been very supportive of projects that help women—including a crowd-created book that I am finalizing about women in innovation.

Google can surely be doing much more, though, and can even learn from start-ups such as one that I am advising.

When I joined the board of  Humin, in May 2013, its founder Ankur Jain expressed deep frustration about the lack of diversity on his engineering team.  “I agree we need to have a team that understands the product needs of more than just the young male user, but we just can’t find them,” he said.  Competition for talent is indeed fierce in Silicon Valley, and it is difficult for start-ups to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook—which sometimes offer million-dollar signup packages.

I advised the Humin team to network with women’s groups and look harder.  And that is what it did. Percy Rajani, Humin’s vice president of product and engineering, says it revamped its interview process to look for top talent in unconventional places rather than just looking for former employees of other well-known tech companies.  He felt that the company could teach its recruits programming languages and processes, and that intelligence, motivation, and personality were the key traits to recruit.

Humin did succeed in assembling an exceptional and diverse engineering team.  By broadening its search process, it found a depth and breadth of female talent, especially amongst developers whose original background was in engineering fields other than computer science.  Today, one third of Humin’s 18-person engineering team are women.  Two of those hold PhDs.

A common problem in Silicon Valley is that the interviewers for technology jobs are usually young men, and that the job specifications are geared towards finding young nerds.  The hiring process is like recruitment into a fraternity.  Until Dropbox recently made wholesale changes to its hiring practices, the conference rooms where interviews were held were named “The Break-up Room” and “Bromance Chamber,” and applicants were sometimes asked what they would do in the event of a “zombie apocalypse” or what they were “geeky about.”  Needless to say, it is such antics that turn female developers away and serve to discourage girls from studying computer science.

That is why technology companies need to rethink the way they recruit.  They need to look at how jobs are defined so that they don’t exclude women, who have a tendency, unlike males, to pass up opportunities for which they don’t have the exact skills.  They need to look beyond the usual recruitment grounds by interviewing from universities where there are high proportions of women and minorities, as well as at conferences that women engineers attend, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and Women 2.0.  They need to insist that, for every job opening, at least one woman and minority member be interviewed, and that the interviewing committee be diverse.  And they need to make sure that the hiring is for competency rather than for credentials.

Why is diversity important for tech companies?  Consider that more women than men use social-networking apps on mobile phones.  Products designed and developed by males don’t usually incorporate the intricacies of gender and race.  Humin’s senior product manager, Arielle Zuckerberg, said that the team had to redesign the product’s search function, for example, because “women can remember people in different contextual ways than men, and so might search for their friends using different queries.”  The original version was also designed to activate certain features by tapping on the phone while it was in a pocket.  Arielle pointed out to the development team that women don’t keep phones in their pants but hold them in their purses.

The technology industry is unnecessarily holding itself back by hiding its diversity data and pretending there isn’t a problem.  If it comes clean, as Google just has, it can start having informed discussions about its problems and their solutions.

 Related: Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance in one chart

Link to article on Washington Post’s website

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  • sakky

    Consider this impertinent question. If it is problematic from a diversity standpoint that only 17% of Google’s US technology staff is female, then does that also mean that if 34% of Google’s US technology staff is Asian-American – more than fivefold the overall percentage of Asian-Americans in the US – then that is *also* problematic from a diversity standpoint? Google (and presumably most Silicon Valley tech firms) are highly overrepresented by Asian-Americans; should they then simply fire most of them to rebalance their workforce to attain an employee population that is racially congruent with the rest of the US population? Put more starkly, why is it so important for a tech firm to be gender-balanced but not to be racially balanced with respect to Asians?

    I also remain unconvinced regarding the argument that a company’s workforce necessarily needs to be proportionally representative of its user base. After all, the overwhelming majority of the *users* of cars in the world are not themselves automotive engineers or designers. To say that General Motors or Toyota’s workforce should reflect its userbase is to imply that only an infinitesimal portion of their workforce should actually be auto engineers/designers. The overwhelming majority of the ‘users’ (that is, the viewers) of the NBA are non-African-American – indeed, the majority may actually now be Asian given the burgeoning popularity of basketball in China – despite the fact that about 80% of NBA players are African-American. Should the NBA therefore remove African-American players and replace them with Asians?

  • sakky

    Mr. Wadhwa, I think it should be pointed out that Google – and presumably all of the other tech firms that you mentioned – have proven themselves to be extraordinarily successful in fostering diversity insofar as hiring *Asian-Americans*. Let’s not forget that only about 6% of all Americans are Asian-American, I believe only about 15-20% of all computer science bachelor’s degrees from US universities are conferred to Asian-Americans, yet a whopping 30% of Google’s workforce is Asian-American. Indeed, the two Humin executives that you interviewed for this blog posting – Ankur Jain and Percy Rajani – are clearly of Asian (Indian) heritage. Indeed, Google is actually *more* diverse – in the sense of employing a higher *total* percentage of racial minorities – than is the typical US firm.

    You furthermore contend that tech firms should concentrate their recruiting at “universities where there are high proportions…minorities.” But Google already does that. Last time I checked, Asians are members of a minority, and Google currently engages in plenty of recruiting at the most prestigious schools in the country, every single one of which have happen to have student populations that are disproportionately Asian-American relative to the total US population. Indeed, Berkeley, which is a major target university for Google recruiting, actually has a (far) larger contingent of Asian-American students than it does white students (40% vs. 30%). You also say that companies “need to insist that, for every job opening, at least… minority member be interviewed.” I defy you to identify a single technical position at Google where Asian-Americans are routinely never interviewed.

    Mr. Wadhwa, what you seem to be saying is that Google won’t be considered to be a ‘diverse’ company in your eyes unless its workforce is statistically representative of the nation writ large. However, that would necessarily require that Google absolutely eviscerate its Asian-American workforce to drive it down to the 6% proportion that would be nationally representative. Is that indeed what you ultimately propose that Google do?

  • I think there are 3 very distinctive areas we must look at when discussing career opportunities for women:
    1) At the point of hiring:
    I agree there must be more scrutiny in the hiring process, perhaps ensuring minority interviewers are a part of the interview panel.
    In addition, HR needs to do a better job educating its employees as far as what types of questions interviewers should ask. As an example, I once was asked ‘if you had a superpower, what would it be?’. This is extremely unprofessional and the candidate is left wondering how the answer is going to be used. And it doesn’t tell anything about the candidate’s potential or skillsets.
    Next time I get that question, I’ll just stand up and leave. Live and learn.
    2) Work arrangements once in the workplace:
    In companies with a worldwide presence you usually find yourself having conference calls at 6 or 7am as well as 10 or 11 pm. One problem I’ve noticed is some male managers expect his employees to be at the office building at 6 or 7 for those early morning meetings. This is ridiculous if you consider we have laptops and phones PAYED FOR by such companies, such that we can take those calls from home.
    In any case, being at the office for a 7am conference call disrupts family time when female workers have young children – they’re the ones making breakfast and taking them to school. Women will usually, then, take those calls from home – but their manager is surely going to be upset.
    As a female manager and a single mom I understand this problem, but believe it or not male managers either don’t care or are unaware of the implications of such expectations. An when these expectations aren’t met, your career suffers.
    Kiss that promo goodbye.
    3) Promotion:
    Men tend to be promoted based on Potential. Women tend to be promoted based on Performance. In other words, if you’re a woman you must absolutely be performing at the next ‘grade level’ if you want to be promoted. If you’re a man, all you need is to show you can perform at the next level if you’re given the chance.
    There’s bias against women and minorities. And large corporations are risking losing their ‘mojo’ unless they become more diverse. They will pay for these mistakes in the marketplace.
    In the meantime, what do we women do? We fight, but we also become entrepreneurs – we have to do what we have to do.

    • Daniela, these are all great points. See my post about Dropbox which discusses the bizarre questions that companies ask….thx

  • H4 visas

    your thoughts on the recent proposal by the DHS to give work authorization to spouses/partners of H1B holders, i.e. those on H4 visas? that’s an extremely qualified pool of female candidates that could, and should, be given atleast a chance to apply for jobs and/or continue their careers without being dependent on a company to sponsor their visa.
    Given its a proposal, and not a bill that must pass through Congress, my understanding is there is a higher chance (and I say this with the greatest hesitation) that this just might happen.

    • This is not only important for the economy, but also a human rights issue for the spouses. It much be fixed.


  • nsavictim

    Seen your linkedin update.
    Dear Vivek,
    How about Boeing’s Engineering division start the Male/Female/LGBT/Transgender, Ethnicity, Creed, Religion, Caste, Ivy or regular schools and etc etc based hiring. Then, hospital medical staff.

    Ain’t this should be based on Merit and not on gender? I’m not against Females or Female workforce. If things progress the way it is now, in a matter of 10 -20 years, you’ll be advocating for some other gender such as LGBT/Transgender/NoGender etc. Are you trying to make more followers by picking some controversial topic? You never noticed those women who were INCREDIBLY successful and were they denied their roles because of gender?

    That’d be even more cleaner.