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At SXSW, Tech's Diversity Pipeline Problem Needs Center Stage

For technology companies seeking to build more diverse, inclusive organizations, the pipeline problem is very real in Silicon Valley.
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An attendee wearing Bose Corp. headphones works on a laptop computer as he participates in the TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015 Hackathon in London, U.K., on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. Disrupt is an annual conference hosted by TechCrunch where some technology startups launch their products and services competing on stage in front of venture capital potential investors, media and other interested parties. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBloomberg via Getty Images

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem – that much is clear. And with the technology industry descending on Austin, Texas for SXSW, trying to fix it is bound to be a focal point.

To explain the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the workforce, many technology companies point to a “pipeline” issue: There just aren’t enough qualified underrepresented ethnic minority candidates to fill open positions, they say.

But that’s not the whole story.

Let’s look at the numbers. Last year, 12 percent of all new STEM program bachelor’s degree graduates from top universities were black or Hispanic, yet these groups comprised only five percent of employees at some of the largest companies in the technology industry - even when including non-technical roles.

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Strong underrepresented ethnic minority candidates do exist. So why don’t they get into the pipeline? Or is the metaphor wrong?

I don’t think it is. But to understand why they’re falling short, tech companies might be better served to scrutinize their own diversity recruitment and hiring practices, rather than blaming the talent pool. Here are a few ways these companies are inadvertently limiting their pipeline of qualified ethnic minority employees.

They rely too heavily on existing employees

Tech companies that want to hire usually start internally to find talent. They look to their existing employees to tap their networks, market their company, and promote open positions to drive potential hires. This is good in theory, but logistically it’s far too ad hoc and difficult to scale. It also might feel unfair to those employees who are being asked to moonlight as an HR resource on top of their other work. Simply asking employees to solve for workforce diversity through referrals won’t do the job. Building diverse workforces is a problem that warrants much more attention.

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Instead, more and more companies are realizing the need to treat diversity like other business challenges, which means strategically investing in HR to open the lines of communication and better market the company and available positions to an underrepresented demographic. In doing so, HR can look beyond existing employees to build relationships and long-term connections with diverse individuals and talent pools previously beyond their reach.

#YesWeCode: From The 'Hood To Silicon Valley - 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival
Civil rights activist Van Jones (L) and Facebook Global Director of Diversity Maxine Williams speak onstage at '#YesWeCode: From The 'Hood To Silicon Valley' during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 16, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Robert A Tobiansky/Getty Images for SXSW)Robert A Tobiansky

Unconscious bias remains an issue

In a glaring – and at this point, well known – study conducted by two economics professors, one at Harvard and one at University of Chicago, job candidates were 50 percent less likely to get a callback if they had a “stereotypically African-American-sounding name” like Jamal, versus a “stereotypically white name” like Brendan. The study highlights an uncomfortable reality around hiring practices: that unconscious bias among employee decision-makers stalls minority hires. It can only be circumvented by a conscious commitment to making diverse hiring a priority, rather than leaving diversity to chance.

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A growing number of companies – places including Google, Slack, and Airbnb – are recognizing this as an issue and undertaking bias training to course-correct. This is a good starting point, but there is evidence that training fails to improve diversity practices over the long-term, and in some cases even ends up reinforcing unconscious bias. In other words, it’s just one tool that must be part of a much larger strategy that incorporates other methods to fight bias. One is the development of quantifiable performance standards that are completely transparent, objective and usable across teams. Another would be to work with third-party experts to source diverse talent. Ultimately, no amount of training can correct for an absence of diverse applicants.

They think about diversity too narrowly

In the tech industry, the biggest challenge a company faces may be to think holistically about diversity as an organization. Whenever diversity is raised today, CEOs and press immediately cite the need to build a more inclusive engineering team. They’re not wrong. But a credible commitment to diversity within a company means a lot more. It means looking at the engineers and beyond, to non-technical roles as well.

Non-technical teams at larger tech companies need diverse talent. No business wants its minority employees to be clustered in “non-core” positions, but the sheer numbers speak to a significant opportunity for a more diverse workplace, particularly at tech companies. From marketing to human resources to legal – of the 291,000 jobs, for instance, in New York City’s “Silicon Alley,” nearly 29 percent, or 83,000, are non-technical. This represents a substantial step in building diversity. Collectively, the industry has to get away from thinking about diversity narrowly and adopt a broader vision to become more representative of the audiences served.

For technology companies seeking to build more diverse, inclusive organizations, the pipeline problem is very real. But, as an industry, we need to move away from looking through the pipeline as a numbers issue, addressing it for what it really is: a self-inflicted challenge brought on by an inadequate recruitment process and an insufficient commitment to rooting out the old habits and attitudes that inhibit change. This needs to be part of the diversity dialogue at SXSW, where workplace inclusivity will be a key focus. Companies need to look inward to make progress in the future.

I am happy to confirm that top-notch candidates from the most historically underrepresented ethnic minority groups are out there; with the right recruitment mindset and strategy, companies can learn to tap the real – and well-populated – diversity pipeline.

Ryan Williams is the cofounder of Jopwell, a recruitment and hiring platform for building a more diverse workforce.

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