The technology industry likes to think of itself as a meritocracy: talent gets rewarded over all else.
But once you dig into the data, it becomes clear that the tech meritocracy is a mirage. And in the wake of George Floyd’s killing last year, businesses across the country began tough discussions about discrepancies in employee experience — and how people of historically underrepresented races, genders and ages tend to feel more excluded and less able to advance their careers than their white and male colleagues.
Of course, many industry watchers and leaders have been shouting about this for decades.
“Organizations used to pride themselves on being a meritocracy, and I think we’ve all now acknowledged that there is no such thing,” Tina Shah Paikeday, a Silicon Valley DEI consultant, recently told Built In. “Now that everyone’s recognized the existence of inequity, equity has become the focus.”
Late last year, Built In conducted a user survey, the results of which were compiled in our 2021 State of DEI in Tech report. As we expected, the results — though promising — aren’t great. However, that report represents a single snapshot of our user base and doesn’t show how the figures have evolved over time. So we tapped several DEI experts and consultants from across the country to help us put our results in context and offer some insight into how these figures fit into the trends they’re witnessing first-hand.
Below, we’ve highlighted data points we found particularly interesting or revealing and asked our respondents for their take.
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- Katica Roy is the founder and CEO of Pipeline, a Denver startup that uses digital technology to help close the gender equity gap.
- Emily Race is a co-founder at Say Space, a Los Angeles-based organization that uses workshops, coaching and consulting to help organizations facilitate conversations around their cultural blindspots.
- Bianca Wilson is Race’s co-founder at Say Space, where she helps businesses identify and root out discrimination within the workplace, and has extensive training in race relations and cross-cultural facilitation.
- Tina Shah Paikeday leads global diversity and inclusion advisory services for Russell Reynolds Associates, a management consulting firm, from San Francisco.
- Rohre Titcomb serves as the chief operating officer for the Female Founders Alliance, a Seattle-based network for female and non-binary startup founders.
- Freada Kapor Klein is an Oakland, California-based activist, entrepreneur and investor. She co-founded the Kapor Center, an organization dedicated to inclusion and social impact in the technology industry, as well as its venture capital arm.
“Just 37 percent of tech employers evaluate diversity metrics for promotions, while only 25 percent take diversity into account when measuring time-in-role.”
Roy: This point is key. The best way to attract diverse talent is to ensure your existing diverse talent is successful. Companies need to measure how opportunities such as promotions, development training and performance evaluations are distributed across their organization. If you focus on ensuring equity of opportunity for underrepresented talent, you won’t have a retention problem.
Wilson: Tech companies move really quickly. So if you don’t have established pipelines already set up, you’re going to go to the easiest thing when recruiting, which is probably going to be a referral. But if you’re hiring people based purely on a very specific set of qualifications, then you’re obviously going to attract more of the same people. It’s important to consider what kind of lineages you’re creating, because I often feel like, in tech, you just get people recommending other people who are just like them.
“Everyone needs to see their role in this and be aligned on what success looks like.”
Race: We’ve talked to so many recruiting leaders who are super committed to changing the way that hiring looks. But then you go to the actual hiring managers who are responsible for conducting those interviews, and sometimes they aren’t on the same page. Everyone needs to see their role in this and be aligned on what success looks like. Otherwise, it all falls into the hands of just a few people who are passionate but can’t make an impact on their own.
“60 percent of employees say they actively seek out information about the diversity of an organization when looking for a job.”
Paikeday: A tech-savvy workforce population has all kinds of sources of information, and millennials are expecting organizations to value diversity, equity and inclusion. And so all of a sudden we’ve moved to this world that’s completely transparent because of social media and rating scales. So I’m not 100 percent surprised, even though the number range may seem high.
“35 percent of companies surveyed report that executive teams are at least 80 percent men. 87 percent report having no Black leaders, 73 percent have no Hispanic or Latino leaders and 97 percent have no Native or Indigenous leaders.”
Roy: This is why “counting” people — also known as “tokenism” — doesn't work. It’s not enough to say, “We have 50 percent women on the leadership team.” Which roles do those women hold? Do they handle profit and loss? What is their annual budget? How many direct reports do they have? You have to measure the power of those positions. You also need to look upstream to understand how emerging talent is being developed to handle future positions of power.
For instance, having profit and loss experience enhances the credentials for someone looking to become the next CEO. A huge barrier to women becoming CEOs is their lack of P&L responsibility: 48 percent of men say they have received detailed information on career paths that lead to P&L jobs in the past two years, compared to 15 percent of women. Meanwhile, 46 percent of men were encouraged to consider P&L roles in the past two years, versus 14 percent of women.
Titcomb: It's so important for people to see themselves in the senior leadership of the company that they work at. And if they can't get a really good chance, they're going to leave. So I think it has huge implications that a lot of different intersections of identity are not being represented at the senior levels. It also presents a really great opportunity; those 80 percent male executive teams represent a relatively narrow spectrum of lived experience. I think that's what's so powerful about the economic opportunity for women and non-binary founders and the companies that they build.
“We have to go back and look at all of the assumptions and biases that are built into how we do everything.”
Kapor Klein: We have centuries of practice where that was the unquestioned norm. So we have to go back and look at all of the assumptions and biases that are built into how we do everything, especially how we source, hire and promote, and even our definition of what success looks like. What are the traits that go along with success? And are those really related to our business? Or are they really just gender stereotypes?
It often takes many years to acquire the expertise necessary to reach the C-suite, and so I think this is partly a legacy problem. When talking about a lack of diversity in leadership, we often hear a debate about whether there’s a pipeline problem or a tech culture problem, and I think that’s the wrong framing. There’s a set of biases that underlie both the pipeline problem and the tech culture problem. Just look at who has access to computer science education. It’s very skewed by income — and income in this country is highly associated with race. So by and large, we don’t even give low-income kids of color a chance to be on the path to tech. That’s an example of the pipeline problem. On the culture side, you have this mentality in many companies that they only hire from Stanford and MIT — no on-campus recruiting, women’s colleges or historically Black colleges. There’s bias on both sides.
“73 percent of all tech employees surveyed said they’ve experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly in the workplace because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or some other aspect of their identity. And it’s even more pervasive among marginalized groups: 80 percent of individuals who don’t identify as male experienced discrimination, as have 87 percent of Black tech employees, 82 percent of Black women and 78 percent of BIPOC tech employees on the whole.”
Roy: Unfortunately, this point makes sense. By definition, if you are experiencing inequity you are not the person in a position of power — and those in positions of power at tech companies are mainly white and male.
“When we run an inclusion index survey, the scores lean entirely in one direction.”
Paikeday: You should see the number of tissues that I have to pull out because of the stories I hear directly from individuals about their unfair experiences. There’s a shift, however, in that people used to feel helpless, right? And it's been that way for so long. Now, all of a sudden, I see people feeling a little bit bolder. They’re more inclined to speak up and say something, whereas they otherwise would have just gone back and said, “Okay, well, I’ll just wait until next year for the bonus,” or whatever it was. I think that people are starting to ask questions about fairness more openly. I do think that people are speaking up more because of what recently happened in the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.
When we run an inclusion index survey, the scores lean entirely in one direction. If I just draw personal experience as a minority female, I’ve experienced so much discrimination that I don’t necessarily openly talk about it. So I’m not entirely surprised by the numbers, though they seem alarming. I think that there’s just a heightened focus on this topic right, but those numbers have always been that high.
“Overall, 54 percent of tech employees say they feel a sense of belonging at work, but that number drops to 43 percent for BIPOC individuals and 40 percent among Black employees. On the other hand, 62 percent of white employees (and 66 percent of white men) report feeling a sense of belonging. It’s worth noting that employees over the age of 46 also report lower numbers when it comes to belonging, with only 42 percent agreeing with the statement.”
Kapor Klein: It’s not surprising at all, despite how tech thinks of itself. Many people in tech talk about it as being the most meritocratic sector, and there’s no data to support that that is anything but an illusion — or rather a delusion — in the minds of the tech founders and venture capitalists who support them. There’s nothing meritocratic going on when you look at the absolute numbers of who’s working in tech and their divergent experiences.
So those numbers are sad, and not surprising — and they don't have to be that way. I think that it ought to be looked at as an embarrassment by tech companies and by the sector. It has everything to do with engagement, productivity and retention, which are all bottom-line financial issues. When tech C-suite folks see the data, they should look at those numbers and say, “These gaps indicate money going down the drain.” We ought to seek to solve those problems because we are wasting people resources and we’re wasting money.
“People are actually saying the words ‘white supremacy,’ they’re actually saying ‘oppression’ instead of ‘unconscious bias.’”
Wilson: I have to admit, I’m actually surprised by the 40 percent, in that it’s higher than I generally hear for Black folks. People often come into workplaces — particularly the BIPOC community — with trauma around their life experiences, and they’re bringing that trauma with them. So we can try to minimize the harm they experience at work, but we’re not addressing the harm that has already been done to them.
I can’t say there’s obvious change happening on this front, but people are starting to put new systems and structures in place where that can happen. It will take time — there’s a sense of restorative justice where people can feel like what happened to them has been addressed. So I’m hopeful that the workplace can support people in this way, but I’m also realistic in that companies have been a certain way for a long time.
Just as a note of optimism, I do think every generation brings a new structure or sense of visibility into things. I see people talking about it more, which is at least an initial step. People are actually saying the words “white supremacy,” they’re actually saying “oppression” instead of “unconscious bias.” So there is a sense of things shifting.
Race: After George Floyd was murdered, we witnessed an almost overnight shift in how this conversation was happening. We could suddenly talk about this directly, versus in this kind of vague way. So I think that’s really important to know that there could be some overnight shifts, though hopefully not due to a Black man being murdered again. But there can be some very quick shifts in how we communicate around this.
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