Ted S. Warren/AP
John Thompson, right, chairman of the Microsoft Board of Directors, speaks on Wednesday at the company's annual shareholders meeting in Bellevue, Wash., as CEO Satya Nadella, left, and chief financial officer Amy Hood look on. The company received praise from the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the meeting for its efforts to improve diversity among workers, but a focus on tech's pipeline is harming some efforts, observers say.

Focusing on the tech 'pipeline' may harm efforts to recruit more diversity

At Microsoft's shareholders meeting on Wednesday, issues of diversity took center stage, with the company winning praise for its efforts to diversify its workforce. But behind the scenes, tech's focus on meritocracy could harm such efforts, lawmakers and former workers say.

Despite a slew of initiatives aimed at increasing the diversity of workers in the technology industry, including pledges by Pinterest and Twitter to increase their hiring of women and minorities, diversity numbers for many Silicon Valley firms remain stubbornly low.

The distinction between the companies’ pledges and the reality — an industry dominated by primarily white and some Asian men, especially in leadership roles — came into sharp relief Wednesday at Microsoft’s annual shareholders meeting, where questions of diversity took center stage.

“Microsoft can lead,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said during a question and answer period at the meeting, praising Microsoft for appointing two new female board members but pushing the company to add additional black and Latino board members, USA Today reports. John Thompson, chairman of Microsoft's board, is black.

Mr. Jackson, whose Rainbow PUSH coalition has long advocated for diversity in the tech world, praised the efforts of chief executive officer Satya Nadella to increase diversity at Microsoft.

“They're taking more and more leadership on this issue, and at least it's all in clear view, they're not avoiding the subject,” he told USA Today.

Mr. Nadella pointed to several efforts, including recruiting a more diverse group of college grads for jobs and increasing the number of black and Hispanic executives at the company. Some 100,000 employees have also undergone new training in unconscious bias, he noted.

“It's not just about words, it's robust action and having a rich dialogue about having a culture of inclusiveness,” Nadella said during the meeting, according to USA Today.

But diversity in Microsoft’s workforce has not increased much in the last year, especially for technology-focused jobs, according to an analysis of the company’s diversity report by the Wall Street Journal.

While the number of blacks and Latinos increased slightly overall, to 3.5 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, the number of workers in tech-focused jobs stayed flat, at 2 percent and 4 percent respectively.

The company has also acknowledged that the number of female workers has fallen, from 29 percent to just under 27 percent, because of layoffs resulting from Microsoft’s acquisition of cellphone maker Nokia.

Beyond the numbers, many advocates have often expressed frustration that tech companies often defer to discussions about a lack of a “talent pipeline” who are women, blacks, Latinos, and other underrepresented groups in the industry.

“Companies can no longer, in our opinion, stand on the crutch that the lack of a 'talent pipeline' is the reason that they have failed to significantly include African-Americans in technology,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) of North Carolina, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus said at an event in Washington on Thursday.

The caucus has been pushing the tech industry to diversify its workforce, including meeting with Silicon Valley executives in August. Now, the group is expanding its focus on tech diversity to include lobbyists for tech firms and other industries that rely on technology, such as financial services and telecom companies, Rep. Butterfield said.

Surrounded by members of seven professional organizations for black workers that have also released their own plans to help connect job-seekers with positions in the tech industry, Butterfield said the caucus was concerned about a practice in Silicon Valley of favoring people who know current employees of a company.

"This practice of rewarding people who have connections in the company reinforces a lack of diversity, since the current employees are not diverse,” he said.

At some tech firms, there can also be conflicts between positions taken by the company’s leader and its recruiting practices and internal culture.

Leslie Miley, who left his job as an engineer at Twitter ahead of a spate of layoffs earlier this month, pointed to a disconnect between the people who use the social media site and the company’s workers, particularly in technical jobs: 27 percent of Twitter’s users are black, with so-called "Black Twitter" frequently driving conversations on a host of social and political issues, but after Mr. Miley, who is black, left the company, “Twitter no longer has any managers, directors, or VP’s of color in engineering or product management,” he wrote on a post on Medium.

While Jack Dorsey, who recently returned as the company’s head, has pointed to a need to have the company’s workers better reflect the people who use the service, Twitter’s recruiting efforts fly in the face of that effort, Miley said.

For example, the company maintained a specific list of schools where it recruits candidates, which did not include state schools or historically black colleges and universities, he told NPR. Twitter has not responded to that claim.

A similar disconnect emerged during the Microsoft meeting, with one man questioning whether Microsoft’s products and marketing was ageist. “I see a lot of grey hairs here, but not many in your commercials,” he said, according to USA Today. “Are you dealing with this, besides sexism and racism? Are there any [Xbox] games for people 50-plus?”

Noting that, at 48, he was a fan of the game Halo, Nadella responded, “this is a very important topic, we have people of all ages at Microsoft,” adding that the company’s products are intended to be marketed to a universal audience.

But he also drew praise for what was seen as his efforts to better connect with shareholders on several issues, including diversity, marking a possible shift in its culture from the leadership of founder Bill Gates and former CEO Steve Ballmer.

"Our culture is a leading indicator of our future success," he said, according to USA Today, “We've gone from being a group that knows it all, to a group that wants to learn it all.”

But behind the scenes, the culture may be different.

In his post, Miley, the Twitter engineer, pointed to a meeting he had with a senior vice president of engineering to discuss a job proposal Miley created focused on increasing diversity among Twitter’s engineers. After the VP suggested Miley should consider analyzing the ethnicity of job candidates in the company’s pipeline “to understand better where candidates are falling out,” using a tool that would look at candidates’ last names to determine their ethnicity, Miley says, he began questioning the limits of Twitter’s stated commitment to diversity.

“What I also found disconcerting is this otherwise highly sophisticated thinker could posit that an issue this complex could be addressed by name analysis,” he wrote, citing frequent inaccuracies with using the technology to identify a person’s ethnicity.

In a statement, Alex Roetter, the senior VP identified in the post, disputed Miley’s account of the conversation, but said that Mr. Roetter had done a “poor job communicating,” and added that one of his “blind spots” was a tendency to focus on “engineering-driven, quantitative solutions” to more complex problems.

“People in tech so want to believe in a meritocracy,” Miley told NPR. “They fundamentally want to believe it's about how good you are, how smart you are, how hard you work. Yeah, I'd like to believe that, too, but the fact of the matter is, when you don't give everybody the opportunity to work that hard, when you don't give everybody a fair opportunity to get through the door, it is not a meritocracy.”

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