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Diversity pledges alone won’t change corporate workplaces – here’s what will

By Kimberly A. Houser

Dozen of companies, from Apple to Zappos, have reacted to George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed by pledging to make their workforces more diverse.

While commendable, to me it feels a bit like deja vu. Back in 2014, a host of tech companies made similar commitments to diversify their ranks. Their latest reports – which they release annually – show they’ve made little progress.

Why have their efforts largely failed? Were they just empty promises?

As a gender diversity scholar, I explored these questions in my recent paper published in the Stanford Technology Law Review. The problem is not a lack of commitment but what social scientists call “unconscious bias.”

Big tech, little progress

Today’s efforts to promote diversity are certainly more specific than the tech industry’s vague promises in 2014.

In 2020, sports apparel maker Adidas pledged to fill at least 30% of all open positions with Black or Latino candidates. Cosmetics company Estée Lauder promised to make sure the share of Black people it employs mirrors their percentage of the U.S. population within five years. And Facebook vowed to double its number of Black and Latino employees within three years.

Companies have also committed at least US$1 billion in money and resources to fight the broader societal scourge of racism and support Black Americans and people of color more broadly.

Unfortunately, if past experience is any indication, good intentions and public pledges will not be enough to tackle the problem of the underrepresentation of women and people of color in most companies.

In 2014, GoogleFacebookApple and other tech companies began publishing diversity reports after software engineer Tracy Chao, investor Ellen Pao and others called attention to Silicon Valley’s white male-dominated, misogynistic culture. The numbers weren’t pretty, and so one by one, they all made public commitments to diversity with promises of money, partnerships, training and mentorship programs.

Yet, half a decade later, their latest reports reveal, in embarrassing detail, how little things have changed, especially for underrepresented minorities. For example, at Apple, the share of women in tech jobs rose from 20% in 2014 to 23% in 2018, while the percentage of Black workers in those roles remained flat at 6%. Google managed to increase the share of women in such jobs to 24% in 2020 from 17% in 2014, yet only 2.4% of these tech roles are filled by Black workers, up from 1.5% in 2014. Even companies that have made more progress, such as Twitter, still have far to go to achieve meaningful representation.

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