Wanted: Greater diversity in tech -- but how?

Tech giants like Google and Intel are investing millions in new efforts to attract and retain women and minorities in their workforces

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When Google pulled back the curtain last year and revealed the homogeneity of its workforce, it opened the doors for a more open dialogue about diversity in the tech industry.

By 2044, people of color are expected to comprise the majority of the U.S. population, and women already make up nearly half of our country's workers. But the technology industry -- Silicon Valley in particular -- has a long way to go to reflect that reality.

Before Google released a report showing that its employees were predominately male and white (70 percent and 61 percent, respectively), companies in Silicon Valley had been reluctant to discuss diversity numbers at all. Now tech giants like Google, Intel, Apple, Microsoft, and others are committing millions of dollars to initiatives aimed at attracting a more diverse workforce

Progress will be slow, they caution, but it is being made. Intel, which as recently as 2013 employed 24 percent women and 4 percent African Americans in the United States, recently committed $300 million to add more diversity. This week the company announced that "since January, roughly 17 percent of Intel's senior hires were historically under-represented minorities -- about double the rate last year. Intel also doubled its senior hiring among women to 33 percent."

Diversity efforts like Intel's are not simply altruistic. Improving diversity adds another layer of perspective on products aimed at an increasingly global and diverse marketplace. Intel is trying to enter areas like wearables, robots, mobile devices, and augmented reality, and it will have to tailor its products for different demographics. "Diverse experiences lead to different input, which leads to different engineering solutions," said Rosalind Hudnell, Intel's chief diversity officer.

For its part, Google announced this week a $150 million investment aimed at improving diversity. "The tech industry really understands that the future of our industry means we have to be more inclusive," Nancy Lee, VP of people operations, at Google told USA Today. "We are literally building products for the world. It can't be this homogeneous."

Strategies to increase diversity are necessarily long term and focus on a number of fronts. Diversity in recruitment is one obvious area. Google, which previously relied on a relatively small number of schools in its hiring program, now casts a wider net -- doubling the number of schools where it recruits to target ones with rigorous computer science programs and diverse student bodies. "This year, nearly 20 percent of the hires we make from a university are from these new campuses," Lee said in a blog post. Google has also increased the number of female software engineers it recruits from 14 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2014.

Intel is setting specific numbers on hiring a more diverse workforce, with the potential of tying executive compensation to meeting those goals. But even with its commitment to diversity, "the company's workforce will still be just about 32 percent women in five years," Hudnell estimated.

Tech companies recognize that simply widening their net for job applicants is not enough. The pipeline itself needs to grow to bring in a more diverse talent pool.

According to the nonprofit Girls Who Code, in middle school, 74 percent of girls express an interest in STEM fields, but only 0.3 percent of high school girls select computer science as a potential college major. To increase the number of future female hires, Google is partnering with Disney to create cartoon characters who embrace computer science and cast a positive light on girls who code.

"If we want to expand the employee pipeline, we must tackle this because girls who don't see others like them in the field tend not to go into it," says Julie Ann Crommett, Google's program manager for computer science education in media. "TV can have an impact. The popularity of 'CSI' led to a big jump in people going into forensic science, and many of them were women."

GoogleIntel, Apple, and Microsoft are also investing in higher-education programs to encourage women and minorities to study computing, and they've formed partnerships with traditionally female colleges, historically black colleges, and schools with large Hispanic student bodies. Google software engineers are not only teaching introductory classes at schools like Howard University, Hampton University, Fisk University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College, they also coach students on how to send a professional email and navigate a software engineering job interview.

Getting women and minorities in the door is only the first step; structural barriers to retaining and promoting them also need to be addressed. Company culture can play a big role in driving women and minorities away from tech jobs. According to the Level Playing Field Institute, "more than 2 million professionals and managers in today's increasingly diverse workforce leave their jobs [each year], pushed out by cumulative small comments, whispered jokes, and not-so-funny emails."

As a start in addressing the problem, half of all Googlers have participated in unconscious bias workshops that provide practical tips for addressing bias.

However, some are wary of the new diversity initiatives. Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the recruitment of women in technology, told Mother Jones that "many companies pay lip service to diversity rather than making the real changes." Whitney believes that the low number of women pursuing computer science degrees "stems from the failure of Silicon Valley's leaders to groom more women for top positions," which in turn discourages younger women from entering the field. "First, it has to be a priority to have a diverse workforce," she says. "And the priority has to come from the top.'"

Laura Weidman Powers, the executive director of Code2040, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial diversity in tech hiring, doesn't believe tech companies discriminate deliberately; the causes for their lack of diversity are more subtle and structural. "Referrals are a huge source of inbound talent for these companies, even when you look at a company as large as a Google or a Facebook," Powers told Mother Jones. "Given that most Americans run in the social networks of people who look like them, the system benefits [Silicon] Valley's dominant groups at the expense of those on the outside."

But with the new openness to discussing diversity, the low numbers of women, African Americans, and Hispanics no longer seem to be accepted as part of tech culture.

And hopefully the 2010 book "Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer," which featured Barbie turning to her male friends for help when her computer gets a virus ("'It will go faster if Brian and I help,' offers Steven"), will soon be an anachronism of a less-diverse tech industry and -- as Feminist Hacker Barbie said --  "Barbie [will] be the competent, independent, bad-ass engineer that she wants to be."

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