Tech Firms Striving For Diversity Fixate On The Wrong Metric
Opinion: To fix its diversity problem, Silicon Valley companies need to start analyzing statistics for individual teams.
This article first appeared on Wired.com — The issue of diversity and inclusion in tech is what designers call a wicked problem. It’s a cluster of systemic and individual biases, compounded by years of denial, complicated by changing socioeconomic forces. Still, that’s no excuse — -especially since Silicon Valley prides itself on solving impossible problems, and given its exceptional influence in the business community and around the world.
Diversity reporting is the tech community’s most visible response to the underrepresentation of women and people of color. As the management cliché goes, “what gets measured gets done.” So acknowledging the problem is an important first step. After Google released its first diversity report in 2014, companies like Amazon, Pinterest, Facebook, and even my own company Atlassian followed. Since then, initiatives like Open Diversity Data, which tracks the diversity reporting of major tech companies, have called for others to do the same. In fact, new data shows that 30 percent of tech workers want their company to report diversity statistics if they don’t already. But while external reporting was a great first step, we need to be more sophisticated about what we’re measuring and how.
Industry statistics paint a woefully homogenous picture: About 2 percent of the tech workforce is black, 3 percent is Latino or Latina, and 24 percent identifies as female. Little has changed since Google’s landmark report three years ago.
Accurate measurement is critical to creating positive change. This is both personal and professional to me, as a Latina social scientist, and it’s quite literally my job to champion diversity in the global tech industry.The status quo involves measuring diversity company-wide (e.g., reporting that 2 percent of all employees are women of color), which is simply the wrong unit of analysis. That’s because company-level measurement doesn’t actually measure diversity — -it measures representation.
An increase in representation isn’t the same as an increase in diversity. If your customer support team is 60 percent women and 50 percent non-white, but the rest of your employees are white men in their 20s and 30s, your company is not truly diverse, no matter how good the overall numbers might look. Aggregates can help us understand how the tech industry overall is doing, but they don’t show the gaps at within specific parts of an organization. Relying on these incomplete assessments prevents companies from moving the needle on diversity and inclusion.
Company-level measurements also don’t allow for meaningful cross-company comparison. Companies have very different business models and organizational structures. Comparing a sales-heavy company (say, Yelp) to an R&D-heavy company (like Atlassian) with one that has a retail division (Apple) is comparing apples to potatoes. Diversity is inherently a group-level construct, and we need something that tells us about the real interactions people are having on their teams day-to-day. Only then can we make comparisons across companies and teams doing similar work.
What’s more, corporate-wide diversity assessment isn’t granular enough to accurately measure progress at large companies. While things change quickly in Silicon Valley, tech giants are called giants for a reason, and demographic change takes time. Companies aren’t going to fire an enormous portion of their workforce just to make room for new candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, for good reason. And it’s not mathematically reasonable to expect a company with 50,000 people to jump more than a percentage point or two in a year for a given group (even a 1 percentage point improvement would represent an increase of 500 people). A better instrument would measure workforce transformation year over year, even if it’s small.
Companies should focus on a unit of analysis that measures where diversity has the greatest impact: at the team level. Teams are key to improving diversity, because it’s the interactions between people every day that we’re actually talking about when we say “diversity.” Teams are also where the innovation that creates business value actually happens. Looking at the diversity of teams is the only way to understand whether people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and identities are actually working together on a daily basis.
Team-level data also allows meaningful comparison between companies, and is sensitive enough to measure subtle but important progress. For example, team-level analysis allows specific functions within organizations — -such as marketing at Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest — -to compare their progress. That makes a lot more sense than comparing marketing and engineering at Twitter, for example, because the overall demographics of people who work in those fields differ. If people of color are only represented on a few teams, the company can focus on recruiting for programs on teams that have less racial diversity. If women of color tend to be spread across teams, the company can encourage cross-team community building to foster a sense of inclusion and drive retention.
The good news is some companies are moving toward more nuanced measurements — -like assessing diversity in engineering and non-engineering roles, for instance. However, this approach still provides a limited view of the dynamics within each functional unit across the organization.
Better measurement and analysis will foster a greater understanding of areas for improvement and guide tactics to close the opportunity gap. As an industry dedicated to data-driven solutions, it’s time to measure diversity with the same level of obsession.