Belfast Telegraph

Tech firms so last century when it comes to diversity

By Adrian Weckler

How important is diversity at tech companies? By some metrics, it's not very important at all.

Social media giant Facebook recently admitted it remains largely a white male firm. The number of female workers is stuck at 33%, while black employees make up just 2% of its staff.

The figures are for Facebook's US operations. But it's a common story across the world and in Ireland, tech companies largely hire white men for the vast bulk of senior technical, engineering and management roles.

These firms blame 'the pipeline' from schools and colleges, claiming that not enough women and men of ethnic minorities are coming through the required educational and training channels.

But others say this excuse sidesteps a critical factor: that companies founded by rich young men who went to elite colleges are overly-focused on recruiting similar people. Tech firms sometimes call this "culture". In trying to guess who will be a success and who will be a failure if hired, recruiters go with what they know.

Even in Dublin, a satellite base for lots of Silicon Valley tech firms, big firms' recruitment processes can involve four or five interviews and 'vocation' tests to check whether the candidate's personality 'matches' what they're looking for. This is over and above any qualifications you actually have.

Deviating from this is seen as a risky move that might "lower the bar".

Aside from the problematic societal implications of this culture, there is evidence it may not work to advance tech companies' progress. "Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring," said Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google in a 2013 interview with the New York Times.

"We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It's a complete random mess. After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school."

This message doesn't seem to be getting through to recruiters for some of the biggest tech companies. Web giants, especially, seem to be the most white, male and conservative. For example, black employees make up just 2% of Google's staff, 2% of Facebook's staff and 2% of Twitter's staff. And that's for all roles; it's just 1% for technical positions.

Older, non-web tech firms are a little better, though not by much: 3.5% of Microsoft's staff are black while 8% of Apple's staff are black.

"The lie is that there is some sort of pipeline problem preventing tech companies from hiring more black people," wrote Microsoft engineer Dare Obasanjo in a blogpost on the issue earlier this month. "The reality is that tech companies shape the ethnic make-up of their employees based on what schools and cities they choose to hire from and where they locate engineering offices."

In Ireland, assessing whether there is a problem in hiring ethnic minorities in tech companies is harder to gauge as there are less technical design roles here than in tech companies based in the US.

However, there is no lack of evidence about how scant the amount of female participation at top levels in local tech companies.

Research I undertook this year found under 3% of tech-related venture capital, a central source of funding for tech firms in Ireland, goes to firms led by women.

What's more, the average individual investment (around £499,000) in a female-led Irish tech company was nine times less than in the male-run firms (around £4.62m).

And while almost one-in-eight venture capital-funded tech firms here has a female co-founder, only one in 20 has a female chief executive.

The problem isn't limited to men choosing men over women. According to my research, two-thirds of the tech companies founded or co-founded by women last year also chose a male chief executive to run the business. (Of the four firms run by a female chief executive, all were founded by women.)

Where women are involved at a senior level, it is still typically in the roles of marketing, HR or project management roles.

How much does all of this matter?

To society, it matters a lot. Tech companies are now the biggest, most important companies in the world. Other industries now look up to their working practices.

So if they say that hiring more women or ethnic minorities is an act of philanthropy that risks "lowering" the performance "bar", others will feel empowered to do the same.

Belfast Telegraph

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