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Facebook isn't trying hard enough to increase its diversity

Engadget Engadget 16/07/2016 Nicole Lee
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Facebook released its annual diversity report on Thursday and, sadly, little has changed from last year. 52 percent of its US employees are white, 38 percent are Asian, 4 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Black, while 67 percent of its global staff are male. New leadership hires did improve to 9 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 29 percent women, but the numbers were overall still quite poor. In a blog post, Global Director of Diversity Maxine Williams said this is due to the lack of diversity in the tech pipeline. She states that appropriate representation "will depend upon more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system," and then said Facebook would pledge more money towards diversity programs. Several critics have since responded to this statement, saying that the problem lies not with the so-called pipeline, but within Facebook itself.

"The pipeline problem is demonstrably false," said Leslie Miley, a Director for Engineering at Slack who left Twitter last year due to the company's diversity issues. In an interview with Engadget, he said the issue lies in the company's own internal hiring practices. Simply donating money to diversity programs isn't enough, he said. "I think it's a very poorly done PR job to gloss over the fact that while Facebook may be doing the right things externally, they're not doing the right things internally."

The problem isn't unique to Facebook. Other Silicon Valley companies, like Google and Twitter, have recently reported poor diversity numbers too. Williams said in the statement that "only 1 in 4 US high schools teach computer science" and very few women and minorities have taken advanced placement computer science tests.

But while there is some truth to the lack of diversity in technical fields, the numbers still don't add up. Recent studies show that Hispanics and Blacks make up around 6 to 8 percent of computer science graduates every year. But out of the number of employees that Facebook employs in technical roles, only 1 percent is Black and 3 percent is Hispanic. Further, the percentage of underrepresented minorities employed in non-technical fields at Facebook is pretty low too -- 7 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are Black.

"There are a ton of opportunities to increase demographic representation in tech companies with the people that already exist in the workforce," said Joelle Emerson, a chief executive of Paradigm, a diversity consultancy, to USA Today. This sentiment was voiced repeatedly on Twitter with the hashtag #FBNoExcuses, which was created as a response to Facebook's poor diversity report. Critics slammed the company for not trying hard enough and overlooking qualified candidates who don't come from prestigious universities or fit within the status quo. Some pointed out that other tech companies, like Intel and Slack, have managed to increase their company diversity substantially, so Facebook's excuses rang hollow.

Charity Majors, a former Facebook employee, tweeted that while the company implements training about unconscious bias, she still heard many comments during her time there on how hiring diverse employees was potentially "lowering the bar." Bo Ren, another former employee, wrote a Medium essay on how she studied hard for an interview to get her job at Facebook, but a white male co-worker breezed through the hiring process due to referrals. Kaya Thomas, a 20-year-old software engineer, also wrote a blog post in response to the diversity report, stating that she's getting tired of being overlooked due to her gender and ethnicity. "According to most tech companies, if I can't pass an algorithmic challenge or if I'm not a 'culture fit' I don't belong," she wrote. "Ignoring the fact that underrepresented talent exists shows me that they don't care about diversity and they don't want us working in tech."

Mike Street, a senior digital and social marketing consultant based in New York City, said he finds it troubling that Facebook couldn't move the needle on its numbers. "They can post #BlackLivesMatter over the top of one of their buildings, but I want to see #BlackJobsMatter," he said to Engadget. "Mark Zuckerberg, who never finished college, created an amazing company. But yet when it comes to people of color, we must continue to be the 'magical negro, LatinX, Trans' super coder with a 1,000 IQ in order to get a foot in the door." There are several things that tech companies can do to increase diversity, he said, such as set up internships at historical black colleges and host monthly networking mixers.

"If there's one thing I could kill in tech, it would be referrals," said Miley. "That needs to go away. Every study shows that your network looks like you. It's an amplifier for sameness, to not ever change anything."

"They refuse to acknowledge that it's a race issue, that it's a gender issue," he continued. "You may not be purposely racist, but when you refuse to acknowledge that the person sitting in front of you who didn't go to the same school as you, and you're not taking into account their background and their experience, you're measuring them against a rubric that people of color will never meet."

Miley also said it was unfortunate that companies like Facebook and Google were putting so much more effort into increasing the H1B visa cap than into the diversity of US employees. "I fully support the increase in H1B visas. I don't have a problem with that. But there's this model with setting up standards of excellence with sponsoring people from China and India, that could easily be replicated in the United States. Don't tell us you can't find talent here when you can go 8,000 miles and find talent."

"It's not an Us vs. Them thing," he said. "These companies jump through all these hoops to make this [immigration] happen. But they don't want to jump any hoops to change themselves. They go to India and China because the people can conform to what they want. But they're unwilling to go to Atlanta, Detroit, Memphis, Cincinnatti... because inherently they don't believe that people in those communities have the skill set to do the job."

Erica Baker, a fellow Slack engineer, tweeted that if companies can't get minority candidates to come to them, they should go to where they live. Miley agrees. "Open your offices in more diverse areas. That will change your ratios." Plus, having tech jobs in a community that's not typically known for tech is beneficial overall. "When children and teenagers see people doing those jobs, and that they're well-paid, they want to aspire to that. It's a virtuous cycle."

Additionally, when these employees want to move higher up in the organization, they'll move to the company's Silicon Valley headquarters, thus diversifying those offices. "Now a strange thing happens when you have diverse people; they hire more diverse people."

Some of these tech companies did build offices outside of Silicon Valley -- like in Boulder, Colorado and Cambridge, Massachusetts -- but these areas aren't particularly diverse. "Why not Detroit?" Miley asks. "If they say 'the talent's not there', how do they know? They haven't even looked."

"This Facebook press release and report is an insult to the people who are doing the work of diversity there," said Miley. "It threw them all under the bus. Like Ren said, if this were any other product in a tech company, two years of no growth would be deemed a failure."

"They're not doing anything different," he said. "All of these companies are not doing anything different. That's why the numbers aren't moving."

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