Long Reads SXSW HP

Inclusion, interrupted? Progress and pitfalls in tackling tech bias


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

September 8, 2017 | 12 min read

The scene has played itself out often. As has the heartbreak. The moment that a job candidate hears “we’ll be in touch” and realizes that they are not getting the job they truly want. It happens to many but is especially acute in the minority community, and an issue that HP wanted to put in full relief.

A powerful video, created by agency Fred & Farid, illustrated the unconscious bias African-American job candidates endure. Seeing deflated spirits and dejection is hard to watch — and though it is, in effect, advertising, the message hit home authentically, according to Lesley Slaton Brown, chief diversity officer at HP.

“When we tested with focus groups, feedback we received included: ‘Oh my God. This happened to me right before I got to HP’ and ‘I had to experience that, but yet I know that I met the requirements to do the work. In fact, I went against one of my friends for a particular job. I had better grades, experiences and internships, and yet, they made it to the final round and I didn’t.’”

The video is part of a wider campaign called Reinvent Mindsets which addresses not just race, but gender and LGBT bias — and part of a much more aggressive push by HP, considered one of the standard bearers of improving diversity, equality and inclusion in Silicon Valley. Since the launch of the first video, others have been released, painting a compelling narrative that addresses serious issues of bias, including the well-received “Dads and Daughters,” which illustrates sexism in the interview process.

Internally, the company continues to strategically develop its training programs around unconscious bias and looks at it like most who are waking up to the benefits of a diverse workforce: a very good business decision.

“We really wanted to raise awareness of the ingrained biases that exist in the hiring process within the industry. In particular, in the tech industry,” said Slaton Brown. “We felt like it was time for us to really go beyond just talking about it and put action to words.”

A problem in the pipeline?

Action is a key component. Progress is another. It’s clear that the tech industry’s diversity issues won’t improve overnight, but the excuse that it’s a pipeline issue, that there aren’t enough candidates of color that meet the requirements is, by and large, not exactly true, said Dr. Maya Beasley, co-founder and principal at Washington DC-based T10 Group, a diversity consultancy.

Speaking on Diversity in Tech: Readiness to Recruitment at SXSW, she noted that there are approximately 265,000 Americans of color, 45 or younger with bachelors or advanced degrees in computer science, math and electrical engineering as of 2013.

Of those people, 7% of men and 12% of women were unemployed compared to 2% of white men. Additionally, 13% of men and 16% of women of color worked in jobs unrelated to their tech degrees.

In Silicon Valley, according to Beasley, the tech workforce is 2.2% African-American and 4.7% Hispanic. Comparatively, 17% of the tech talent in Washington DC is African-American. Miami’s tech community is made up of 29.9% Hispanic Americans.

“There are areas that actually have diversity in their tech workforces,” noted Beasley. “DC, for example, is actually a larger tech workforce than Silicon Valley, so it's not just because there's a smaller number of people that they were able to find more people of color. These are really large tech areas. I don't want to say that there's no pipeline issues where we want to be, but the pipeline isn't the explanation for where we are right now.”

In general, companies are not great about reporting diversity data. According to Fortune magazine, only 3.2% of companies on the Fortune 500 list gave complete data. Though the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple release demographic data, it’s clear that there is work to be done, with the demographic breakdown still tilting to a majority white workforce.

“They think the fact that they actually report their numbers means, ‘See? We're trying.’ They think it makes them look better,” said Julius Pryor III, a consultant who has held high-level diversity roles at Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Abbott Labs and Genentech.

“There are plenty of jobs in those companies that don't rely on having abilities to code. There are plenty of jobs in those companies that don't rely on complex engineering skills, so what about those jobs in addition to the tech jobs?” he added, also noting that the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, is an industrial engineer who graduated from Auburn University in Alabama and got an MBA at Duke. He spent most of his career in operations and sales, not writing code.

Looking outward and from the top

To Beasley, if an organization truly wants to tackle diversity, they should be looking outside their own walls, to people who can actually impact change, with one caveat.

“The diversity industry is worth about 200 billion dollars,” she said. “You’re not looking for just anyone. If you actually want to enact change, figure out who to go to, who you can talk to, who are genuinely experts, and not just self-proclaimed experts in the field of diversity because there's such a huge variation in what you'll get.”

Finding the right people outside of organizations, to shepherd the appropriate direction, is one thing, but looking inward can be just as worthwhile. According to Pryor, it all starts with leadership.

“The first thing that's critically important is that you really need buy-in from the top. Organizations need to be serious about this,” said Pryor at SXSW.

Pryor also noted that less than 25% of Fortune 500 companies have a chief diversity officer and that, “those numbers are even smaller when you think about the tech space, especially in Northern California, Silicon Valley — and less than 6% of those people are actually reporting in to the CEO or someone really senior or in a business unit in the organization, so the perception of where this job reports to really matters.”

Where progress can get bogged down is in it becoming a function on HR when, in fact, diversity should influenced in the corner office.

“It's not inherently disadvantageous if [the function] reports to the HR department, but the other key is to be sure that that person has respect and is able to actually influence the key leaders and the other key influencers in the organization,” Pryor said. “Oftentimes, I don't see this happening in the way that it should.”

For its part, HP has strong buy-in from the top with CMO Antonio Lucio taking an aggressive and public stance on diversity and inclusion with the right support.

“Our corporation has the most diverse board in America,” he noted. “And diversity has been one of our key drivers in improving our overall business. Businesses, not just our own, need to address diversity as a business priority.”

Numbers, and accountability, matter

Diverse workforces are clearly major contributors to the bottom line. For his part, Pryor has had a front row seat to tremendous success and feels that the business conversation is the right one to have beyond workforce representation, pluralism, succession plans — the tactical hallmarks of addressing diversity.

“If you were doing a call with analysts at an organization, you would be talking to them about earnings per share, revenue, cycle times, inventory returns, how are you connected to the market place,” noted Pryor. “That's really what I focused on, in terms of how you drive these things forward.”

Indeed, Pryor pointed to a case where, during his time at a pharmaceutical company, he was able to engage African-American doctors and patients (an often ignored population) for a prostate cancer treatment that ended up with 100% market penetration within the community — even after what he called “surprising pushback” from other managers that tossed out stereotype after stereotype about the demographic.

“There are cases like that in every company where you have someone who is a minority — African-American, women — who have a perspective that can actually help the company drive revenue, drive market share and they're being ignored, for the most part,” said Pryor. “People who run companies may not have that perspective and don't see that as important. That was a specific example of how you can leverage diversity and inclusion to drive an outcome that delivers results.”

Intention, as it relates to hiring people of color in general, and specifically in tech, is one thing, but without accountability, the efforts can fall flat.

“We have a comprehensive plan,” said Lucio. “But it’s important to follow through with actions and measurement.”

Beasley noted that, “[It’s important to] make sure that organizations are using metrics and measuring so that they can see the change, even the small, incremental changes over time. You see the tech giants putting out diversity reports for the sake of transparency and they’re not seeing any real change. We want to see a bunch of organizations putting out the same data so we can see who is changing.”

Outreach and hyper-collaboration

One of the more troubling chestnuts in recruiting is simply around outreach. By and large, companies aren’t necessarily making the efforts to go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) to find talent, for example.

“When you get people there, they see so many capable students,” said Pryor. “They say ‘why didn't I know about these places?' Well, they haven’t been there before.”

Networks matter greatly as well. In Silicon Valley, and tech in general, the “bro” culture of white men creates closed off networks and, by extension, opportunities. Interestingly, cohorts of color may not necessarily be a good thing either.

Robert Murray, an Austin-based developer with deep experience in building applications for music, hospitality, fashion, finance and more, advocates for pushing the boundaries to help accelerate opportunity.

“It’s proven that having a more diverse team is going to build better products,” he said at SXSW. “You should be pushing through to build out your network. Create, expand and invite other people in your network.”

Comfort, or lack thereof, is a key consideration as well.

“If you have an insular network that's primarily other people of color, unfortunately, it means you've got the wrong network for those jobs,” said Beasley. “In some ways, it can be helpful but you want to make sure that if, for example [as Murray noted earlier in the talk], the white boys are the ones that are tied to VCs and they're going into meetings and coming out with a whole lot of money really quickly. You don't want to exclude yourself from those same networks because you think that they are unwelcoming. Do what makes you uncomfortable because eventually it will pay off.”

Once the networks continue to grow, Pryor strongly advocates for what he calls hyper-collaboration, laid out in his book, Thriving in a Disruptive World. At its most basic level, he shows that highly collaborative teams function well together, understanding that they are on a mission, focused on goals and objectives and it’s up to each member of the team to do the best they can within the context of a culture to succeed. He noted the New England Patriots as an organization with a strong culture, where everyone understands their job and is prepared to simply do it when called upon.

Pryor sees that practice as useful outside in networks — and put in the work to engage the academic and corporate communities during his time at Genentech, helping to lead a consortium of companies that identified and recruited high-performing students from HBCUs such as Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton, Howard and Tuskegee. Tech companies like Cisco, HP, IBM and others pooled resources to bring students in as summer interns, providing a new lens into what is possible for the students and the companies as well.

“They're going to remember the organization that supported them,” said Pryor. “If we have the right culture, they're going to want to come to work for us.”

To that point, HP continues to engage the HBCU community through its HP HBCU Business Challenge, where students work to solve real-world business cases that offer prizes but, more importantly, career-building opportunities.

"It's just great for us, great for them — great for the HBCUs to get their brand exposure and really showcase their students, so we're very excited about that,” said Slaton Brown.

Previous pilots of the program, according to Slaton Brown, were very successful and brought a winning team of four to HP’s Palo Alto HQ, with two securing internships with the company.

“That's what we want to see. It will help build our pipeline,” noted Slaton Brown. “In addition to that, we're building relationships with the deans, with business schools, and with schools of engineering. This is not a drop in the bucket. This is a long-term relationship and partnership that we're building.”

Though, to Pryor, it is still a Sisyphean task, and there is a very long way to go, the end result is obvious, especially with his experience and understanding that making a serious, measurable commitment matters.

“It's not that black people are going to win and white people are going to lose — the rising tide will lift all boats. This is going to be beneficial for everybody.”

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