[Editor’s note: This guest commentary comes from Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association]
In the technology industry, we pride ourselves on being data-driven, rapidly making sound business judgments with mathematics and deriving brilliant insights that create a better future. Well, there is some data we have been ignoring that demands attention from our legendary problem-solving prowess: among Washington technology startups founded in the last five years, 95 percent are founded and run by men. Nationally, almost all investment decisions in technology venture capital funding are made by men, and according to Fortune, women get less two percent of the investment dollars. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), only two percent of the professional-level workforce in the top 75 U.S. technology companies are black, four percent are Latino and 30 percent are women.
In tech, talent attracts investment capital, which in turn attracts more talent, which attracts more investment capital. This powerful economic cycle has led to spectacular wealth and job creation. Since the investment decision-makers and business leaders are almost all white men, is it any wonder that we are a white male island of economic privilege? A simple internet search shows dozens of academic studies, over decades, that demonstrate human beings are predictable – we consistently surround ourselves with mini-me’s unless we deliberately choose not to.
The talent shortage in technology is a long-term problem, and a prime example of how we are failing as an industry to leverage the full range of resources available. Despite our country’s increasingly diverse citizen demographics, the tech industry continues to ignore thousands of talented under-represented minorities and female professionals that could fill jobs that sit empty for months. Broadening the talent pool to include more black, Latino, Native American, and women candidates will be the most effective way to raise the bar for talent and sustainably build a capable workforce for the next 50 years.
A common misconception is that a lack of “qualified” people of color or women in the pipeline is the reason for their absence in the industry. But we know this is untrue. The Center for American Progress shows that tech candidates of color are underutilized. Between 2000 and 2013, science and engineering undergraduate enrollment increased for Latino and black students, and the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in those fields earned by Latino students also increased. Yet their representation in the industry has remained flat. Inherent gender and racial biases, such as proven discrimination against women who are mothers, are rampant in technology recruiting processes. Until white men in hiring manager roles focus on and insist upon hiring people of color and women, we will continue to experience a dearth of diverse candidates.
Many technology companies have tried to be more inclusive, introducing new practices in their hiring and retention programs and even appointing chief diversity officers, a role that now exists at about 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies. This is not how to solve this problem. When tech leaders choose a BHAG, we exert massive effort and investment to achieve it. To solve our diversity dilemma, we need to boldly declare that our employee population will look like our community within a few years. Only then will we make progress. With painfully few exceptions in a few tech companies, the diversity gap isn’t closing. Worse yet, beyond the low success in recruitment of women and people of color, those few that are hired into technology jobs leave those positions at alarming rates relative to white men.
One study, reported by USA Today, found that attrition among women in technology is double that of men, and that over a 12-year period, about half of women in STEM roles had left the field. The numbers are even more discouraging for people of color, who leave the industry at more than 3.5 times the rate of white men. The Kapor Center for Social Impact estimates that these attrition rates are currently costing the industry $16 billion per year.
Conversely, McKinsey and Company released research that indicates a strong correlation between diverse workforces and improved financial performance among companies around the world. Intentional inclusion promotes a culture that is more open to new ideas and perspectives, which fuels innovation. The McKinsey report also makes clear that customer orientation, employee satisfaction, decision-making and company reputation are markedly improved with teams that have more diversity across race, ethnicity, and gender. There is no sector where diversity in staffing is more critical to success than in technology.
Since white men are the dominant force in the technology industry, then it is incumbent upon white men to proactively and enthusiastically recruit women and people of color to join our ranks. This is not only up to CEOs or the boards of tech giants. It is up to all white men in this industry, regardless of our role or the size of the company we represent. We must demand bold diversity objectives from those who lead our companies. If we are to grow our industry in a globally competitive world, we need to change our definition of who we view as smart and capable enough for this work, and recruit accordingly on a large scale.
There has been exhaustive discussion on the diversity problem in our industry. Fingers are pointed and blame is placed everywhere from education and economics to justice systems and white privilege. There is truth in some of it, but to create solutions, the industry must take a closer look at the reasons why we have a divide, and what issues have been ignored to date that have created this chronic problem. The conversation must shift from a blame-oriented lecture that swells and fades, to a productive examination of the core contributing factors.
Lack of access and economic disadvantages are societal factors that limit many groups from having an opportunity to gain the education they would need to enter the tech field. Gender stereotypes are another issue. A study published last year in Science Magazine found that six-year-old girls are “less likely than boys to think members of their own gender can be brilliant — and they’re more likely than boys to shy away from activities requiring exceptional intelligence.” Girls begin voting themselves out of STEM around middle school, when, according to Dr. Monica Burdick from Ohio University, they typically become more vulnerable and self-conscious about false ideas that “girls can’t do math, that there are no ‘cool’ women in science, there are no women in engineering, etc.” Other studies have shown that once the interest in STEM is lost among girls, it does not rebound.
There are plenty of women and people of color who perform outreach to those young people. That is not enough. There just aren’t enough diverse role models to reach the full population of young people. Our industry is perpetuating painful dynamics that lead to the high attrition rates we suffer. White men must actively embrace those rare pioneers among us to help those who are not white men succeed, help them become fully accepted, and encourage them to help bring more diversity into our teams. We must do this, not out of some altruistic or condescending sense of moral obligation, but because we genuinely know and understand that team diversity is the only way to win in a brutally competitive, global marketplace.
Some people see technology as a bulletproof economic engine, on a perpetual upward trajectory. This is a mirage. The diversity divide in our industry is impeding growth, constraining innovation, and artificially limiting resources. We have a serious problem on our hands and must act with equal seriousness. We are going about our business in a happy daydream of creativity and wealth. If we don’t solve this problem now, the U.S. tech industry will stagnate and be surpassed by global competitors in the next few decades.
It’s time to wake up and get serious about recruiting, developing, and retaining the diverse talent we need to succeed.