Facebook, Google say diverse workforce key to survival

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Silicon Valley isn’t home to unrepentant bigots who want to keep minorities out of tech as much as it is a place with a word of mouth culture where hiring has bred a largely white male workforce.

That was one of the many themes at USA TODAY’s panel on diversity in tech organized in association with Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance Thursday, featuring representatives from Google and Facebook as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“Most of the problems will be resolved by trying to get hiring managers to see diversity as a positive goal, but in many ways that’s a harder problem to solve than one of unrepentant bigots,” said Richard Thompson Ford, Stanford law professor and author of The Race Card.

Ford said that universities contribute to the problem when computer science classrooms feel like alien places for many minorities.

“Will you find racists in computer science department? No, but you may find people with preconceived ideas of who will be good or not (in tech),” he says. “There’s a culture that exists in those departments, one of who helps who. And if you’re not comfortable, maybe you go, ‘I could do something else, I’ve got options.'”

While African-Americans and Hispanics are roughly 11% and 15% of America, they are about 1% of tech company rosters, according to diversity numbers released over the course of the year.

Also among the panelists, who were led through a two-hour discussion by USA TODAY editor David Callaway, was Laura Gomez, a former Google and Twitter employee and founder of Vyv, a company that hopes to make the government more transparent.

Gomez came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 10, and despite her success in the tech world had sharp words about the lack of diversity at many big tech firms.

“I have been to many recruiter events where I never see any Hispanic recruiters,” she said. “When you hire by association, where maybe a Goolger gets hired by a Twitter friend, you’re just perpetuating the problem. (Investor) Peter Thiel has said that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy if you know the right person. Well often we don’t know the right people.”

Jackson used a variety of metaphors to make his point that the problem needs urgent attention, often drawing a parallel with how American sports boomed in quality, popularity and financial success once the color barrier was broken.

“These companies need to widen their hiring nets. If you’re fishing in a small pool you won’t catch big fish,” said Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH coalition has been pressing tech firms on this issue. “(Tech firms) target women and minorities for business, so they know we exist. It’s the civil rights movement’s duty to expose this and demand plans for them to look like America.”

Nancy Lee, Google’s director of diversity and inclusion, readily admitted that the search giant was “not doing a good enough job doing that outreach (to minorities), otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing that gap.

She said Google has begun “casting a wider net,” in particular by placing a Googler in Residence at traditionally black colleges with a mission to bring computer science programs up to Google’s hiring standards.

“We ask, are we being bold enough in terms of who we’re looking for and where we’re looking for them,” said Maxine Williams, global head of diversity at Facebook, who noted that sometimes students are surprised to hear that successful company like hers are still hiring.

“Most people live in homogeneous communities and that’s a whole bigger issue,” she says. “So we have to put in programs that allow us to look in these places and create these internships.”

While such moves are admirable and necessary, Jackson didn’t mince words when it came the dire need for leveling the playing fields in one of the nation’s fastest growing and most successful business sectors.

“A black or brown person coming out of Stanford has less chance than a white person,” he said. “The access to the Valley across America is not fair. So the question for them all is, how do you profit from inclusion?”

Article source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/11/06/usa-today-stanford-summit-focused-on-diversity-in-tech/18630745/

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