Intel isn't done solving Silicon Valley's diversity problem, but you can help

Intel released its mid-year report showing that it had doubled the amount of "diverse" hires in the first six months of 2015. This is part of a growing movement in Silicon Valley to change the largely white, male atmosphere of tech.

Eric Risberg/AP (FILE)
Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, visits Kacie Gonzalez, left, vice president of business development and Nick Norena, both with the company Shoto, at the Workshop Cafe in San Francisco on Dec. 8. Now that Jackson and his group, Rainbow Push, have gotten the technology industry’s biggest companies to confront an embarrassing shortage of women, African-Americans and Hispanics on their payrolls, he is stepping up the pressure to come up with solutions in Silicon Valley.

On Wednesday, computer chip company Intel released its mid-year diversity report, showing that the company has taken some major steps to improve workplace diversity.

This report comes six months after Intel chief executive officer Brian Krzanich announced that the company would invest $300 million in making its demographics reflect those of the United States as a whole by 2020. The report, released this week, found that Intel worked to double its inclusion of underrepresented groups at the company, with "diverse" applicants making up 43.3 percent of new hires for the first half of 2015.  

This is a stark contrast to previous hiring periods at the company, which, up until January, only had roughly 20 percent of its workforce classified as “diverse” – which Intel refers to as inclusion of women, African-American, Hispanic, or Native American employees.

The report also highlights what is still a disturbing staple in technology companies: underrepresentation of women and persons of color is considered a norm – and not just in the workforce, but in the industry as a whole.

According to the report, at the end of 2014, Intel’s general workforce was 3.4 percent African-American, 8.3 percent Hispanic, and 0.5 percent Native American. Women of any race made up 23.5 percent of Intel’s workforce. This includes employees at all positions in the company. In management, those percentages were almost halved.

In the technical sector of the company – which accounts for 85 percent of all employees – the lack of diversity is amplified. Women represent less than 20 percent of Intel’s technical force, and the already-single digit representation of people of color was even lower.

Since December, the proportion of underrepresented groups has changed: percentage of African-Americans and women of any race in the workforce has increased, but there have been no significant changes in the number of employees of Hispanic or Native American background. The company acknowledged this shortcoming in its mid-year report, and also noted that it had to do more work in including LGBTQ and Asian employees in its workforce.

This problem is not new, so how are technology companies tackling the issues of diversity? What’s working and what isn’t?

Up until last year, very little was known about the demographics of Silicon Valley technology companies. Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest, petitioned companies to release demographic data of their workforces.

“The general sense I was getting was ‘There aren’t enough women; the numbers are really bad,’ ” Ms. Chou told Vogue last year.

Since Chou collected the data – which didn’t show good signs for inclusion in Silicon Valley – more and more companies have been putting forth transparent initiatives to help drive diversity. But the call for greater diversity has been met with excuses.

Often, the argument being given is the concept of a “closed pipeline issue” – schools aren’t graduating enough women or persons of color in computer science, and so the pool is much smaller to choose from. However, according to research from USA Today last year, more members of underrepresented groups are graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than ever before, but only half of all those that graduate with STEM degrees are actually being hired by technology companies.

This shows that, regardless of what underrepresentation persists in women and persons of color studying STEM fields, there are issues in the hiring process endemic to the technology companies and their hiring process. Intel’s push to create a comprehensive plan to diversify its workforce is one step in the right direction, but the “pipeline” excuse is entrenched.

"I think we started this process thinking that the pipeline was empty and we'd have to start at the very beginning," Mr. Krzanich of Intel told USA Today. "But we were all pleasantly surprised that there's actually a pretty good pipeline going."

The lack of inclusion is due to what some are calling “the leaky pipeline,” or inherent biases of employers and venture capitalists along the way, in addition to problems that this zeitgeist causes to media and the education system. As mentioned, the upper management of most American companies is white and male. Additionally, so are most venture capitalists, who fund early-stage technology companies. With lack of exposure of women or persons of color in management, and the propensity for employers to hire those who look like them, companies are slow to fix diversity problems.

And because it takes a company effort to reach out to those underrepresented in the industry, or to help fix something systemic, employee diversity tends to be static. And a “leaky pipeline” or “closed pipeline” are blamed.

“if you go to the right colleges, the pipeline is there,” Krzanich told USA Today. "I won't say it's easy, but it's certainly something that can be done."

Intel was able to double its number of new hires of minority populations through a number of different events, one of which included sending recruiters from an underrepresented demographic to talk to students about life as a minority in the tech industry.

“[Students] want to talk to people who understand what it's like to be at Intel as a woman, as an African American,” Krzanich said.

Though Intel still has a lot of work to do, its approach to increasing diversity has some seeing this as a step in the right direction. Its proposed hiring goals are some of the highest in Silicon Valley, but hiring is only one part of tech's diversity problem

Once in the workplace, minorities in tech face workplace discrimination from their co-workers, often not intentionally. Sometimes, it's based on an assumption that, due to advertising tropes from 30 years ago, computers are solely for white men. According to the Boston Consulting Group, women are 4 percent – and African-Americans 44 percent – more likely to leave a technology job in the first year than their white, male counterparts. These resignations often cite workplace discrimination as the reason for leaving. Bias – even unintentional bias – among co-workers can force employees to feel alienated, commoditized, or erased in the workplace, as Julie Ann Horvath noted in her reasons for leaving software hosting company Github.

But unintentional discrimination is still discrimination, and Krzanich notes that real work needs to be done to help stop it in Silicon Valley.

“We’re calling on our industry to again make the seemingly impossible possible by making a commitment to real change and clarity in our goals,” Krzanich said back in January. “Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers.”

Follow CSMonitor's board Tech & Innovation on Pinterest.
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.