Ellen Pao's lawsuit against the famed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins has done more to shine a harsh spotlight on Silicon Valley's lack of diversity, specifically the dismal number of women and the humiliating practices to which Ms. Pao was allegedly subjected. However, to rectify the diversity gap and foster workplace equality and innovation, we must move from a conversation of discrimination to action items that will break the Valley's brofest and create "ladders in" to one of the most creative and lucrative sectors of our economy.
Let's begin by broadening the definition of diversity that's been circulating in the media. Ms. Pao's case focused on discrimination against women such as being excluded from travel because a woman would complicate the bunking situation or being exiled to the periphery of a conference table. The gender element strikes a cord and has been magnified in part by a more diverse media--the reporters and editors on this story and the tech beat are increasingly women.
Point of view is critical, making an issue out of a once overlooked topic. However, we must be cognizant and vigilant of all exclusions. In the case of Silicon Valley and technology, if women are not well represented, minorities such as African Americans and Latinos are virtually invisible. "Ethnic minorities and women are generally underrepresented, sometimes severely so--particularly in management roles. White and Asian males often dominate their fields," according to a CNN Money investigation which also revealed how many tech companies "stonewalled" the journalist's attempts to get this information. In 2014, Google attempted to get in front of its own gender or minority gap when it released a self-ordered autopsy of workplace diversity (disclosure: I co-founded a summer reading program targeting Latino students supported by Google). The numbers of women and minorities (again with the exception of Asians and Asian Americans) are dismal, especially at the highest management levels.
These examples show how the gender and minority tech gap has become a mainstream conversation. But what is it going to take to create structural change that will create "ladders in" to the tech field? Companies such as Facebook point to employee resource groups (ERGs), Facebook pages, and events such as the Pride Parade or Women's History Month as evidence of their commitment to support diversity. I consider these "ladders up" in an organization once a person is hired. Mentoring and creating community are crucial to recruiting, retaining, and promoting employees from diverse backgrounds. But are ERGs enough to change the game and its rules or even more basic, how do these efforts help a talented candidate get hired in the first place? Does the virtual absence of diversity in the management and employee organizational chart from Day 1 at white hot start ups such as Uber and Airbnb suggest it's business as usual?
A total workplace shift will have a seismic impact on the economy and our society. Look no further than your iPhone and its solutions as evidence of the critical role of different points of view to foster innovation. There's also the ripple effect for students and future employees from minority backgrounds who make up a growing segment of the U.S. population. A better paid labor force not only strengthens a community's tax base. But imagine the impact a well-paying job in tech can have to lift out of poverty not just one worker but all who look up to her in her family and neighborhood.
When faced with big issues, you will often times hear leaders and experts begin their change theory with the phrase:
It's not a question of if, but when.
Tech leaders have the money. But do they have the political will and muscle to make this cultural and workplace change?
If so, when?
Please check back since I'll be exploring the topics of technology and diversity in future posts, including the role of education and politics.