Solving Silicon Valley's diversity problem

The future had better not be like the present... Notes from a recent conference "Inclusivity in Tech"
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

The Atlantic magazine, based in Washington, D.C. organized a free, well-attended one-day conference in San Francisco on improving diversity in the US tech industry.

It might seem strange that an East Coast publisher is trying to solve Silicon Valley's inclusivity problem. But clearly Silicon Valley needs help. It is doing a very bad job. Countless Uber scandals, countless office harassment scandals, countless venture capitalist scandals... and stubbornly low counts on the recruitment of women and minorities.

It was a good turnout and each one the speakers and moderators had something good to say.

The audience was just as interesting as the podium when they shared questions and many of them were members and leaders of a variety of activist groups. I'm positive that the organizers could have picked people at random from the audience for the panels and we would have a great conversation.

The conference began with a town hall discussion on the topic "Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women, And What's Being Done About it?" I did not catch this session. But my observation is that many Silicon Valley workplaces are awful and the addition of gender discrimination must make it even worse. I caught all of the afternoon sessions: Here's some of my notes... [My comments are in square brackets.]

Technology is not racist...

Yolanda Mangolini

Yolanda clique, (above) Director, Global Diversity and Inclusion, Google spoke about how diversity on its teams makes for better products. She showed a video of how a Google camera product trouble taking photos of dark-skinned people.

The video's narrator said there was nothing racist going on because technology is not racist. The error was due to inadequate product testing against the Google team's unconscious bias.

[This is a core belief in the Google credo that technology is neutral and exists independent of user or developer. Culture or human behavior -- can be abstracted, quantified and processed.]

[The Google video had a mixed message: it showed the camera bug being discovered at a party and not by a product team at Google. The video did not make a connection to the value of diversity in product development teams. It seemed a problem of customer usability testing. Also:She made no mention of the infamous email by a Google engineer earlier this year that questioned female attributes in relation to tech jobs. It was a very short presentation and it should have been much more from such an important company. ]

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Salesforce: Charity begins at home in San Francisco...


Fireside Chat: Amy Weaver, President, Legal and General Counsel, Salesforce with Steve Clemons The Atlantic.

There was a lot of chatting about what a great guy Marc Benioff, the CEO and founder of Salesforce is and how Salesforce has a long history of charitable work in San Francisco -- inspired partly by mayor Ed Lee, who had died earlier that day.

Salesforce staff are paid for seven days of charity work a year. [If they are paid does this count as volunteering?] They've made a big difference in San Francisco's middle schools.

[I'm a big fan of Marc Benioff and his philanthropy. Charity begins at home and tech companies should take care of where they live. Benioff and the workers at Salesforce have made massive contributions locally. And the focus on schools is very important. San Francisco drop out rates have been insanely high -- our schools are basket-cases when they should be showcases. We cannot tell the world the future is bright but our schools and communities are failing?! It's hot air -- a stinking halitosis of hypocrisy.]

Next: An awkward session with two VCs...

- Venture capitalists as voodoo dolls...


Chris Olsen, Partner, Drive Capital, Mark Orttung, CEO, Nexient; chatting with Alison Stewart, The Atlantic.

[This was a very awkward and strange session.Two white middle-aged middle-class guys working as venture capitalists -- these are the models for voodoo dolls in this community.]

The VCs talked about working with entrepreneurs in places outside of Silicon Valley and how great it was. The conversation had little to do with the key issues of the conference. When they did fleetingly discuss inclusivity, a person in the audience took them to task on their use of language and asked them to "own" the problem of diversity in the words they choose.

[Language was a key theme. Time and again speakers and audience would question the words being used in reference to a wide range of diversity issues. This is an incredibly important point. Words matter and they matter more than most people realize especially by those in positions of power where casual misuse creates harm. Words make this world and we need to use the right words -- and in the right order.]

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- Bogus pipeline excuse...


Kimberly Bryant, CEO, Black Girls Code spoke with Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic.

Bryant is a dynamite speaker and immediately hit back at the use of "pipeline" as an excuse by tech companies on their low diversity numbers. Pipeline refers to the small percentage of qualified job applicants that are women and/or minorities. She said there are plenty of qualified minorities available but they are not being offered tech jobs.

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A session from one of the sponsors: Blend.


Laney Erokan, Employee Experience Group Lead, Andy Neuschatz, Engineering Manager, Ciara Trinidad, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (above) , Blend.

In a nutshell the message was: Find a workplace that supports flexibility in time schedules to achieve the best life-balance. And restructure work social events to lunchtimes so that parents can attend.

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Mayor: Oakland kids should get those tech jobs...


Mayor Libby Schaaf, City of Oakland with Steve Clemons, The Atlantic.

They spoke about Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, who had died that morning. They said he was a champion of diversity. The mayor said she refused to give Uber a tax break when it announced its HQ in Oakland -- unlike Ed Lee with Twitter. She expressed frustration with dealing with the tech community. She said that voters believed she controlled "tech money" which she does not.

She said she wants the tech jobs to go to her community. Oakland kids should be the ones that grow up and take those Silicon Valley jobs.

[Good luck with that, mayor. It's a marvelous ambition and totally fair but Silicon Valley companies have no connection with their local communities. They hire people based on where they themselves went to school and where they grew up and that wasn't any place like Oakland. To put it simply: they hire from within their social-economic class -- more on this subject later.]

- Where Do We Go From Here? A Town Hall Conversation:

- Diversity needs rebranding...


Left to right, Natalia Oberti Noguera, Founder and CEO, Pipeline Angels; Tariq Meyers, Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Lyft; Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Atlassian; Tom McLeod, Founder and CEO, Omni; Stephanie Lampkin, Founder and CEO, Blendoor; with Alison Stewart, The Atlantic.

- Natalia Oberti Noguera CEO of Pipeline Angels had a lot of great points to make. I especially liked: "When you see minorities leading the discussions on diversity that's when we've made progress."

- Stephanie Lampkin from Blendoor told a story of how she taught herself programming as a teenager, studied engineering at Stanford university, post-grad at MIT and was told by Silicon Valley firms she wasn't technical enough. She started a company so that she could employ her own technical skills. [It's true that pipeline is an excuse.]

- Tom McLeod from Omni shared funny stories of his look being accepted in the mainstream business world yet he is an African-American black. He understands what makes people comfortable.

- Tariq Meyers from Lyft spoke about needing to recognize 400 years of American history and how that legacy affects people in the office.

- Aubrey Blanche from Atlassian said she was fed up with the word diversity and that people kept telling her that they were personally not diverse enough. She said an individual cannot be diverse. However, she did admit to being a "secret Mexican". Her goal is to build balanced teams.

[Good point that diversity is found in teams and not individuals. But each of the "diversity" executives sitting next to Blanche, and on earlier panels, clearly representative of at least one minority and sometimes more. Employers clearly believe that some people look more diverse than others.]

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Foremski's Take: The conversation on inclusivity is a tough one and it is a necessarily long one because education and cultural change are hard to speed up.

But also, the conversation needs to add additional dimensions. There was no discussion of class -- the social-economic status of job applicants is important because it represents the world we live in.

At the conference the subject of class used coded words but was not directly addressed. People spoke about minorities, people of color, and other terms that obliquely refer to poverty and neglect. Words matter and socio-economic class issues matter in understanding why there is a continuing problem of diversity in tech companies.

If class is not discussed in the context of diversity there will be problems later.

A tech company might look diverse -- with software engineers with a rainbow skin-colors and from many countries. But those software engineers all come from the same international middle class -- a class of privilege, same private schools and with the same shared middle class values regardless of country. This is why Oakland mayor's perfectly reasonable ambition to have Oakland software engineers in those local tech jobs will be a much larger struggle than it should be because they aren't members of that monied clicque.

Recognition of economic classes and the measure of social mobility are key to figuring out the path of progress on inclusivity in tech, imho.

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