How Facebook plans to correct its diversity problem

Facebook released its annual diversity report, showing that the company's employees are still overwhelming white or Asian men. 

James H. Collins/AP/File
A Facebook logo displayed on the screen of an iPad in New York, May 16, 2012.

Facebook's Maxine Williams admits her company has a problem. As global director of diversity, Ms. Williams released Facebook's second annual report on employee diversity. Like many companies in Silicon Valley, Facebook employs mostly white and Asian men. Those two ethnicities represent 91 percent of the company's US workforce. Across Facebook's global offices, men outnumber women by 2 to 1 – or 5 to 1 if you leave out non-tech positions. 

Facebook's audience, however, paints a different picture. The majority of Facebook's 1.3 billion users are women and most of them live outside of North America. If Facebook is to continue growing and to remain relevant in the lives of its users, it needs to hire people across a spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives, says Williams. 

"Diversity is central to Facebook’s mission of creating a more open and connected world: it’s good for our products and for our business," Williams says in the report. "Having a diverse workforce is not only the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do for our business."

Williams, a native of Trinidad, joined Facebook in 2013 with the mission of making the company look more like the real world. Black and Hispanic workers make up 14 percent of the American workforce, but only 6 percent of Facebook's employees – a number that has not changed since last year's diversity report. In fact, that share closely matches diversity at other major Silicon Valley companies, such as Google (5 percent Black and Hispanic) and Yahoo (6 percent). 

Overcoming these numbers requires attacking the problem from several angles, says Williams, who previously was director of diversity for White & Case, which, under her, became the second most diverse major law firm in the US.

Her first line of attack is what she calls the "diverse slate approach." In this pilot program, hiring managers within some departments of Facebook will consider at least one qualified candidate who is a member of an underrepresented group to fill each open position. This plan emulates the "Rooney Rule" from the National Football League. Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, insisted that teams review at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior operation jobs. Mixing minorities into the hiring process forces employers to engage with candidates that might not fit their pre-conceived image but could be perfect for the job. In fact, after adopting the Rooney Rule, the overall percentage of black NFL coaches jumped from 6 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2006.

Facebook has also expanded its Facebook University program. These internships invite college freshmen, "generally from underrepresented groups who demonstrate exceptional talent and interest in Computer Science, to spend most of their summer working on teams with Facebook mentors, learning the skills we are looking for at the company," she says. Facebook University aims both to prepare promising students for jobs in Silicon Valley and to encourage them to continue pursuing degrees in technology, a problem that seems to particularly affect women. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. Today, it's just 12 percent. Without a diverse pool of qualified candidates, Silicon Valley will be hard-pressed to find a strong slate of minority employees.

In the last two years, several tech titans have pledged to tackle Silicon Valley's diversity problem. In 2014, Intel earmarked $300 million for recruiting more qualified minorities, offering training and scholarships for promising students, and analyzing the company's culture to ensure a hospitable workplace. Similarly, Google announced in May a $150 million investment in training and recruiting a more diversity group of coders. 

"While we have achieved positive movement over the last year, it’s clear to all of us that we still aren’t where we want to be," says Williams. "It’s a big task, one that will take time to achieve, but our whole company continues to embrace this challenge."

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