For minorities in tech, workplace discrimination begins before they even arrive

Shutterstock

Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Digital Sisters and Stop Online Violence Against Women, knows firsthand the challenges women of color face when interviewing for jobs in the tech industry. That is, if they can land an interview at all.

"There's a clear bias — some people have said this to my face — [that] it's not possible there's a woman, a black woman in particular, who could possibly do any of this technical work and do it well," Mitchell said.

"From the gate," interviewers don't expect "expertise or knowledge coming from a person of color," she added. "Despite the fact that I've seen mediocre bullcrap come out of white men."

Tech giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple have spent the last few years assuring the public of their commitment to diversity. But with each report they release, it's evident that progress is marginal, if it exists at all.

Women held only 11% of leadership positions in Silicon Valley in 2015. That same year, African-Americans held just 1, 2, and 3% of leadership positions at Yahoo, Facebook and Apple, respectively. Pinterest and Twitter had none. The latest diversity reports from major tech companies continue to show alarmingly low percentages of nonwhite employees.

Mic spoke with dozens of workers from across the tech industry — CEOs, founders, game producers, engineers, recruiters, consultants, assistants and venture partners — about how tech's commitment to diversity is hindered by discriminatory recruiting and exclusionary workplace culture.

The message was virtually unanimous: This is an industry in need of a strong, urgent push toward inclusion. To accomplish that, the culture needs a massive overhaul.

Racial bias plagues the recruiting process.

Stock photo of a woman at a job interview  Mic/Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

For many who don't fit the mold, the problems begin before they can get a foot in the door. When recruiting for an open position, employees start by scanning their networks for potential candidates — networks that are predominantly white and male.

"It is fundamentally flawed," said Leslie Miley, an engineer at Slack who formerly worked at Twitter, Google and Apple. "When you get to the C-suite, it's rarely somebody you don't know, or your board doesn't know or your venture capitalists don't know." Miley compared homogenous company leadership to an "echo chamber." Your recruitment pool "is going to look a lot like your social network, and your social network is going to look a lot like you," he said. "You're not going to get a diverse network. You're going to get what you've always got."

Yet there can be consequences for reaching out to diverse candidate pools. Mitchell explained, "As a woman of color, if you try to recruit your own people, you get penalized for that." Mitchell added that if you are a woman of color — a minority on your team — and you are bringing in more women and people of color, you get labeled as the person doing the "diversity hire."

And when diverse candidates are interviewed, Mitchell noted, they face prejudiced assumptions about their work ethic, talent and experience.

When sexual harassment is part of the interview

Denise*, who works in education technology and spoke to Mic under the condition of anonymity, had a meeting with a potential client go sour when the client — a male — told her on the way back from dinner that he had never had sex with a black woman. "I was afraid," she said. "Is this man going to try and rape me?"

Jessica Price, a game producer, tried to leave her job when she faced sexual harassment at work. She told a recruiter she had been threatened, and her company told her to deal with it herself. The recruiter hung up on her, she said.

Price called back and emailed the recruiter, but she never heard from her again, despite how well she thought the call was going. "I've heard this same story from other women who dealt with it," Price said. "You can't tell people what happened to you. You're not going to find a job because you're seen as somebody who's troublesome."

The "pipeline" myth needs to end.

Stock photo of a woman at a job interview  Mic/baranq/Shutterstock

Former Google employee Allison Esposito, the founder of Tech Ladies, a job board and support community for women in tech, told Mic that the pipeline issue — the idea that there aren't enough talented candidates of a certain demographic available for a position — is self-perpetuated. 

"A lot of people say, 'There's no pipeline — we would hire women if they were there and ready and willing to interview for these things, but they're just not there,'" Esposito said. "And then we offer something like [our service] Hire Tech Ladies, and we're like, 'Here they are.'" 

Several companies have come under fire lately for blaming their lack of diversity on a lack of talent. Chairman of Sequoia Capital Michael Moritz told Bloomberg's Emily Chang that the company's lack of women was just a result of there not being enough talented women.

"Oh, we look very hard," Moritz said in the Bloomberg interview. "In fact, we just hired a young woman from Stanford who's every bit as good as her peers, and if there are more like her, we'll hire them. What we're not prepared to do is lower our standards."

In July, Facebook head of diversity Maxine Williams blamed the pipeline for the company's meager increase in hiring women and minorities.

"Appropriate representation in technology or any other industry will depend upon more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system," Williams said in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Research suggests the problem isn't that enough women lack leadership qualities — it's that a double standard holds them back. According to a Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership, the prevailing reason respondents cited as a woman's barrier into management positions was having to do more than their male counterparts to prove they were up to the task, regardless of their qualifications.

Denise told Mic that the entire hiring process needs to be dismantled for companies to ensure they're creating a more diverse workforce.

"When companies say 'we can't find qualified people,' it's bullshit," she said. "I know it's bullshit. I can push it out to my network and tons of people will respond. And that's just my network. Why should I have to do that for a company that is spending millions on their recruiting? It's sad when they say, 'We can't hire, we can't lower our standards.' It's not that you can't. It's that you won't."

What "cultural fit" really means

In February, Facebook made headlines after it was revealed that its employees were scratching out "Black Lives Matter" on the company's signature wall in Menlo Park and replacing it with "all lives matter." It was an indicator of a larger problem in Silicon Valley: A mentality and behavior exists that isolates and often actively excludes women and people of color, which leads to individuals prematurely judging them during the hiring process.

Many people of color have trouble getting face-to-face interviews, and later — if they do land an interview — getting hired, because they're deemed a poor "cultural fit," said Mitchell.

"When you're constantly asking for a cultural fit, what you're really doing is saying, 'We don't want diversity, we want some level of uniformity.' Almost every person of color who's applied to any of these companies has heard the words, 'You are not the right cultural fit for our organization.' The next phrase that's commonly said is, 'You are the affirmative action hire.' You don't have the skills; you're just here for the image of diversity."

Mitchell argued that employers need to take measures to make their offices "a place where you are comfortable coming to work every day as a person of color." Otherwise, "you're constantly walking into a hostile work environment."

Brogrammers are rewarded for fitting in.

Stock photo of a woman at a job interview  Mic/Africa Studio/Shutterstock

The phrase "brogrammer" emerged in the mid-2000s as a sardonic way to label a certain mold of computer engineer.

"It's almost like being in a frat house," said Denise. "Our tech team [and] our dev teams are usually all male. They generally like the same types of things. They hire the people that like the same types of things, whether it's an IPA or video games or whatever it is. They feel like brothers — maybe not blood brothers, but fraternal brothers."

When those brogrammers are tasked with hiring for "cultural fit," their teams remain homogenous, their company culture just as exclusive.

Denise said that the dev team within her own company is small, but when they were expanding it, the VP of technology "wanted to create that type of environment with people he thought he would get along most with." She said that while he may have never made explicitly biased statements, "he was biased against certain types of names and certain types of resumes or backgrounds."

Video game developer Brianna Wu said that one of her first sexist work experiences in tech was the week Halo 3 came out. She was doing dev-ops for a small company and was the only woman on her team.

"All the straight men on the team mysteriously 'got sick' that day, and were actually at my boss' house playing Halo," Wu said. "Neither I nor the gay guy on the team was invited. It really sent us a message that we were not included."

Wu said that when she tried to talk to a colleague about it later, it was evident that her boss never intended to invite them. "'It was a guys' thing,' he insisted. 'We were drinking beer and eating pizza. You wouldn't have been comfortable.'"

Wu said that later that year, that boss assigned two of the men who were invited to his house that day to a special project, and they both got large bonuses that same year.

"Being excluded from those peer groups affects who gets hired and fired," she told Mic. "The guys that do this don't do it out of malicious intent. But it's very interesting to see who tends to succeed in mostly male environments."

Do not mistake a diversity report for a diversity effort.

When Google released its first diversity report in 2014, "people were like, 'Shit. Shit. It's bad,'" said Miley. That year, Google revealed 30% of its global workforce was female. Blacks and Hispanics totaled just 3% of Google's technology departments. "It's actually worse than even the anecdotal evidence would have given you.

"When Google put that data out there, it started the conversation that needed to start, which is: 'We are really bad at this,'" Miley added. "You would come to one conclusion: This company actively discriminates against certain groups or is preferential to a particular group of people."

Diversity reports have become common and expected practice among tech companies in the past few years — and a way for the public to hold them accountable. But what kind of effect do they have on the companies that produce them?

Tracy Chou, a founding team member at Project Include, a community aiming to diversify tech companies, said, "Generally, the flavor of these press releases is, 'Hey, these numbers aren't great but we're going to improve [them].' For people in underrepresented groups, it can feel hollow when they aren't seeing change in the culture."

"Diversity reports have almost become corporate standard," said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, another founding member of Project Include. "They don't mean that much in the absence of concerted actions."

We have to change the culture — and it starts at the top.

Miley said companies committed to diversity need to "take a strategic pause."

"It is so important that we ... take the time to find a candidate who is qualified — not the first qualified candidate, but a candidate who is qualified. Which means you need to see more than one candidate."

In late 2015, Twitter hired Jeffrey Siminoff as its vice president of diversity and inclusion. Siminoff is the co-founder of the Leadership Committee at Out Leadership, a LGBTQ activism organization. He is also a white man, and the hire was criticized. "There was such a strong reaction to the changing of the guard because the person who was hired reflects the existing employee base, which is especially controversial for someone leading diversity," Mark Luckie, formerly Twitter's journalism and media manager, told the New York Times.

"Siminoff may be the best person to do that job, but did [Twitter] see anyone else?" Miley told Mic. "I know a little bit about that hiring process, and I know they didn't really bother seeing anyone else."

Chou said that creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce has to start from the top; it's not an issue that can be tackled through grassroots efforts.

"It can be frustrating to hear your company [say] 'we care about diversity,' and then a senior role opens up and it gets filled by a white man," Chou said. "They have so much scope of influence, if they continue to be occupied by the same sort of people and not women and minorities, it's hard to see how the culture will shift very dramatically."

Smarter recruiting 

Siminoff said in an email to Mic that Twitter is "doubling-down on recruiting practices that advance our commitment, probing for and acting on vulnerabilities that stand in the way of it and partnering with organizations that can help us ensure that we are building a diverse workforce and creating an environment where all employees can thrive and build impactful careers." These practices include recruiting at historically black colleges and universities as well as Hispanic-serving institutions, and meeting with student groups for underrepresented communities, Siminoff said.

An Airbnb spokesperson said in an email to Mic that the peer-to-peer short-term homestay startup is "committed to making the Airbnb team more diverse, and we have work to do." Last month, the company announced a series of steps its taking toward diversity in a 32-page report.

Facebook, Google and Apple did not respond for comment.

Denise insisted underrepresented groups of people are out there, eager to work in tech. She cited meet-ups, historical organizations and overlooked diverse college campuses as a few places tech companies can recruit from.

"You have to [recruit from] colleges where, historically, people of color or marginalized people or lower socioeconomic groups are likely to go," she said.

Esposito said that the Hire Tech Ladies job board can be a valuable resource. It "can't control if there's unconscious bias when you go to interviews" or "if the person interviewing you is a white man and he's going to not be interested in working with a woman," but it can "at least" get these companies the candidates that they say they want.

LaToya Allen, a software engineer in Chicago and founder of SheNomads, a community for underrepresented individuals in tech and their allies, said that it will be obvious if a company is committed to attracting diverse people if you examine their leadership, the career pages where they advertise for jobs or what conferences they sponsor, to name a few.

"You can release all the numbers you want," Allen said. "But if you're not doing all of these basic, simple things, do you really want a diverse work culture? I don't know."