Turns out the Elephant in the Valley was also the elephant in the room at the massive South by Southwest Festival this past week.
President Barack Obama talked about it; so did his chief technology officer. Tech pioneers Steve and Jean Case discussed it, as did Pinterest and Twilio engineers, executives at Facebook and Yelp, several venture capitalists and the CEO of Vox Media.
The diversity issue in Silicon Valley took center stage at the SXSW Interactive Festival, in keynote speeches, panels, workshops and networkers. This comes several years after embarrassing numbers — showing that few women and minorities worked at Silicon Valley’s elite tech companies — were brought to the forefront. One keynote session was even titled: “Why we are still talking about it.”
Why? Because the numbers are still going in the wrong direction, said Tracy Cho, a software engineer at Pinterest. She was one of the people who raised the issue, penning a post on Medium in 2013 titled, “Where are the numbers?” Lack of diversity affects business results both through poorer products and lackluster shareholder returns, Cho said, citing research.
Her call to action and those of others helped spur employment reporting by Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter and other Silicon Valley companies, but she said that two years later the numbers really hadn’t budged. “In hindsight, hoping the numbers would improve themselves was not a plan,” Cho said.
Now Pinterest and other companies are beginning to tackle the problem in a business-centric way: tracking metrics, setting goals, creating accountability, experimenting, learning and iterating, Cho said.
How bad are the numbers?
The current status at Silicon Valley tech companies that have reported their numbers: Less than 20 percent of tech employees are female. Under-represented minorities in tech number in the single-digit percentages. Women in senior leadership roles make up 15 percent to 30 percent of the companies reporting, but for blacks and Latinos in senior leadership, it’s back to the single digits.
The investing landscape looks similarly bleak. Women make up less than 8 percent of investment decision makers in venture capital firms. Less than 1 percent of VCs are black; 1.3 percent are Hispanic, Cho said. A paltry 3 percent of funding goes to women-led startups and 1 percent to African American founders, said investor Trae Vassallo.
Vassallo and Michele Madansky recently released Elephantinthevalley.com, inspired by the conversation coming out of the Ellen Pao/Kleiner Perkins trial last year that served to raise the issue that no one wanted to talk about once again. They were joined on a panel by Obama’s CTO Megan Smith and Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the numbers of minorities in tech.
In 1984, 35 percent of the computer science degrees went to women; now it is about 19 percent.
“We believe this is a systemic ecosystem issue,” said Powers to a packed SXSW ballroom. In 1984, 35 percent of computer science degrees went to women; now it is about 19 percent. In high school AP classes in computer science, the trend is similar.
There are many reasons commonly cited for why fewer women are going into computer science, much of it cultural. Noting that Grace Hopper invented the first programming language, and that the history-making computing team documented in The Imitation Game was actually heavily powered by women, Smith said, “We kind of ran our history through a rinse cycle and washed the women and people of color out and wrote the story without them.”
In the Elephant in the Room survey, the authors found some alarming results, including 60 percent of women suffered unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, and about the same number perceived they did not have the same opportunities as men. The authors also surveyed SXSW’s female attendees, and 74 percent said they believed they were less well compensated than their peers.
We kind of ran our history through a rinse cycle and washed the women and people of color out and wrote the story without them.
Megan Smith, U.S. CTO
Research abounds showing that diverse teams perform better, Smith said. “We are at version 1.0 in solving this but we have to do it together.”
Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff admitted on stage that his biggest misstep was not building a diverse team from the start.
Some of the solutions offered by the panelists: Widen your net. Go outside your network for candidates. Have a surfing party with your team, look at award sites and other unconventional places for possible candidates. Mentor and sponsor promising women and minorities. Be role models. Get in the classrooms and help the teachers.
Cho added some of her own: To create a welcoming culture, it starts with the founders. Set goals and hold people accountable. She was also heartened to see some universities making their intro CS courses “more friendly,” rather than weed-out courses.
Earlier at SXSW, Obama spoke of the 1.5 million job openings expected in tech by the end of this decade, and that universities will not be able to fill that need. Help us get more Americans into these jobs, including women and people of color, and encourage them to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, he said.
Smith and Obama also brought up the White House’s TechHire initiative to train and place thousands of coders, which now includes 50 metro areas, including Miami. Coding boot camps are great places to diversify your pool of candidates, the panelists said.
Diversity was a hot topic at Miami’s recent Blacktech Week, including Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz asking the crowd to apply because he does not want his company to look like Silicon Valley. Code Fever, Codella, Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are offering coding programs locally to draw more youth into tech. Recent moves to help prime the pipeline include the announcements that PowerMoves, a fellowship program and national network for entrepreneurs of color, and WIN Lab, an accelerator for women entrepreneurs run by Babson College, are setting up operations in Miami this year.
“If everyone in this room would take an action, we could move incredibly quickly as a tech community because that is how we roll,” said Smith.
Find more South By Southwest coverage on the Starting Gate blog. Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.