Lack of diversity still the ‘elephant in the Valley’, festival told

Creative answers are needed to increase participation, SWSX Interactive hears

Katherine Power of Clique Media Group and Emily Weiss of Glossier at SWSX: the conference heard from Jacquelline Fuller,   the head of Google’s  philanthropic arm, that about about 70 per cent of  staff in the tech world is male. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Katherine Power of Clique Media Group and Emily Weiss of Glossier at SWSX: the conference heard from Jacquelline Fuller, the head of Google’s philanthropic arm, that about about 70 per cent of staff in the tech world is male. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Low participation by minorities in the tech sector will continue if white men don’t get more involved in finding creative ways to increase diversity, says Jacquelline Fuller, the head of Google.org, the search engine’s philanthropic arm.

Speaking at South By SouthWest (SXSW) Interactive, Fuller outlined how statistics on participation by women, Hispanics, African Americans and other minorities are low, despite increasing awareness.

Outside Google

“Google is typical of the rest of the tech world,” she says. “About 70 per cent of all staff is male. About 80 per cent of all executives are male. The statistics are even more abysmal when you look outside of Google at the number of companies founded by women, or how willing VCs [venture capitalists] are to fund new ventures pitched by women.”

Fuller highlighted one study which demonstrated that when a male and a female delivered the exact same pitch for a new company to various VCs, the man was far more likely to secure funding.

Google.org has a number of initiatives, such as GirlStart, to try to improve participation by minorities because, according to Fuller, it makes good business sense. “Even if you don’t care at all about diversity, from a business perspective, we’re missing big opportunities. Any company will make better products if they have more diverse teams.”

A lack of diversity in design teams has proved catastrophic in the past. “Too much cultural homogeneity can lead to fatal design flaws,” said Robin Hauser Reynolds, director of the documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap who was also speaking at the event. “The first airbag model installed in cars killed or injured many women and children because it was designed by men who didn’t factor in the impact of their designs on different body frames and weights.

She also mentioned the infamous story of car manufacturer Chevy’s effort to launch a new vehicle model – the Chevy Nova – into Latin American markets. “‘No va’ in Spanish means ‘doesn’t run’, or ‘doesn’t go’.”

The issue of minorities in technology is a common theme at this year’s SXSW Interactive event with a variety of panels and discussions taking place. The recent publication of a survey entitled: Elephant in the Valley, highlighted the widespread sexual bias in Silicon Valley, and has been mentioned by numerous speakers.

“There is unconscious bias that exists within everybody and guys tend to group and amalgamate around themselves,” said Blake Irving, chief executive of the world’s largest domain name provider, GoDaddy. “That’s why we need blind interview processing the same way they have been doing philharmonic orchestra auditions for decades.”

The language of tech job descriptions is inherently biased towards men, he said. “The words we use when hiring are targeted at a gender. When we soften them and make them equally interesting to both genders, we have proven at GoDaddy that more women apply for our jobs. Computer science principles course ‘The Beauty and Joy of Computing’ was so named by Prof Dan Garcia from the University of California, Berkeley, to broaden participation in computing among women. It worked.”

Economic boom

Increasing minority participation is needed for practical reasons. “We are experiencing a huge economic boom in the tech sector where around 125,000 computer science graduates are needed each year to fill the available jobs in the US,” said Fuller. “We’re only producing about 50,000. The key to overcoming under-representation of women and other minorities in tech lies in the pipeline.”

Real change will likely require direct action. “We used to think tech would be a new kind of industry, and that things would be different but that proved to be a myth,” says UCLA Prof Jane Margolis, author of, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing.