Can Silicon Valley Bridge Its Diversity Gap?

25:16 minutes

In 2015, Intel set the goal of increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in the company. In that year, 43.1 percent of new hires came from that group. Even with that ambitious push, the company still remains 75 percent male and 86 percent white and Asian. Why can’t the tech industry innovate ideas to solve its diversity problem? Tech investor Freada Kapor Klein discusses the bottlenecks in the system and culture of the tech industry.

Segment Guests

Freada Kapor Klein

Freada Kapor Klein is a  partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and founder of the Level Playing Field Institute in  Oakland, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Earlier this month, Intel released its numbers on employee diversity. In 2015, one of the company’s goals was to actively try to increase diversity, 43.1% of new hires that year were either women or underrepresented minority groups. And even with that ambitious goal, the tech giant is still sitting at 75% male, 86% white and Asian combined.

And what about the newer folks in the valley, Facebook? Facebook fares only slightly better, with 70% men and 57% white. A report out this month from the group Digital Undivided found that there were 88 startups led by black women. And of those, only 11 were able to raise over a million dollars, and just half received any venture capital funding. Why can’t Silicon Valley innovate ways to bridge its diversity gap? Is there a gender bias in the workplace, and how can tech retain more women and under-represented minorities?

My next guest has experience in all of these areas. First job in Silicon Valley was as the first head of employee relations, organizational development, and management training at– you’ll recognize the company– Lotus. Remember Lotus? Freada Kapor Klein is a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and founder of Level Playing Field Institute. That’s based out of Oakland, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Thank you so much– a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Freada, your first job in Silicon Valley was as the first head of employee relations, organizational development, and management training at Lotus, as I said. How were you trying to approach diversity then?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, unfortunately it hasn’t changed as much as we think it should have. I always find it ironic that people practices have been the slowest part to change of any aspect of tech companies. So way back in 1984, my job description was to make Lotus the most progressive employer in the US. And we did that through a variety of initiatives, including focusing way back then on diversity.

And I think all of the companies in that era made some progress. And then there was enormous backsliding. And people considered themselves to be post-diversity, and that it didn’t matter anymore. So we haven’t had much attention to the issue for the last several years. And I’m delighted to say that Silicon Valley is, and technology in the ecosystem in general is once again starting to take diversity and inclusion issues seriously.

IRA FLATOW: And how is it doing that?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, there are a number of initiatives. So I think very importantly, there’s been a call for transparency and accountability. For companies, just as you mentioned, Intel releasing their numbers, talking about the progress they’re making and where they are falling short of their own goals, and then putting some real effort and some real dollars behind it.

I also think a very promising trend is what I’ve been referring to as a POT– People Operations Technology. So lots of companies now call their human resources function people ops. And lots of startups are trying to mitigate bias in all aspects of hiring and employment at scale by leveraging technology. So finally, tech is using tech to solve its diversity problem.

IRA FLATOW: We have some people who are involved. Let’s go to Suzanne in Oakland. Hi, Suzanne.

SUZANNE: Hi, this is Suzanne.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

SUZANNE: Can you hear me? I just want to bring awareness to age discrimination in the workplace in the Bay Area. I moved from New York, which is kind of an ageless town in many ways, and experience and age are respected and found that working for a tech company here, it was a very youthful atmosphere, and you were very aware of your age and people made you aware of it. So I wanted to bring that to the floor.

IRA FLATOW: OK, Freada– age discrimination?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: It is certainly an issue in tech. There have been these painful stories of people going to get hair transplants, man going to get hair transplants and dying their hair and plastic surgery to appear younger. I mean, that’s a very unfortunate form of bias that is indeed rampant in tech companies.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we see a lack– I’m trying to get my head around this issue here and why it’s jumped out of Silicon Valley. Because we see a lack of women and minorities in all sorts of industries– the sciences certainly and finance. What is so different about either the culture or the issue or the jobs in this problem area?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, I think the numbers in tech are actually worse than in other sectors, certainly than in financial services and other sectors of the economy. I think also a key issue is the culture of technology is that it describes itself as a perfect meritocracy. So in that way, tech sets itself up and then falls short.

So in some ways, technology needs to get rid of the arrogance and to say, you know what? We aren’t that different in key areas, that we really need to take on the myth of meritocracy. And we need to look at all the ways in which subtle and not so subtle biases impact how we do business, who we hire, who we think is qualified, and that’s why we look the way we look.

IRA FLATOW: Remember technology used to be back East here, around the Boston area, before we had the Silicon Valley? Was it the same back here in those days?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, Lotus was founded in Cambridge.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m asking you.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: It was. Well, in some ways, in relationship to the caller’s question, I’m ancient for being somebody in tech, given that I worked in tech in the ’80s. In the ’80s, there was a huge group of technology companies. And Digital Equipment Corporation, that doesn’t exist, was the largest private employer in Massachusetts.

And it had the very deep and wide diversity efforts in the ’80s and ’90s. And as I said, all of these efforts just kind of evaporated and people declared that they were post-diversity. So now we’re really digging in again with a new generation.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You conducted a study in 2011 looking at hidden bias in the IT workplace. And you found that men and women felt differently about how diversity was handled. Tell us a little about that.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, we absolutely found gender differences in perceptions of how diversity is handled in tech companies. We also found profound differences between Caucasians, Asians, and African-Americans and Latinos. So what we find in general is that here we are working so closely in the same environments. We’re working towards one goal, to make our company successful.

And we have vastly different perceptions and experiences of day to day work life, of what it means to work on a team, of what it means to be included, of what jokes are appropriate or inappropriate, of what kinds of socializing with colleagues is appropriate or inappropriate. So what we found are things like, if you ask all of the– even if it’s just restricted to the engineers and managers– and you ask, is your company doing the right amount on diversity?

In general, women and underrepresented people of color say, nope, not doing enough. And the men and the Caucasians and Asians say, we’re doing just fine. Maybe we’re even putting too much emphasis on this issue. So if we don’t even agree how important the issue is, we’re never going to solve it.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones now to Arthur in North Carolina. Hi, Arthur. Welcome to Science Friday.

ARTHUR: Hi. How are you? So I think that the problem is that there’s just a major cultural bias problem. And there’s not a will. I happen to hold a PhD from a top flight university. I went through a series of notoriously difficult phone screenings for one of the big players out in the Silicon Valley area. I passed them with flying colors. They called me in. And I went through about a day-long round of interviews.

When I arrived in the lobby, I noticed that the building– as I looked around at the other applicants who were there, I was the only black person. And the others, not a female there– all white males, mostly Asian males, white and Asian, matching the demographics of the building as I saw people coming and going and as I went around to my round of interviews.

So there is no shortage– they will tell you all day long, we can’t find qualified applicants. After qualified applicants are showing up, their feedback to me, ultimately, to make a long story short, was that I was not a cultural fit.

IRA FLATOW: Let me get– Freada?

ARTHUR: And I was not offered a position.

IRA FLATOW: Freada, some people argue that it is more of a climate problem like our caller, Arthur, is saying.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, I’m genuinely sorry that you had that experience. And we hear that same story from underrepresented people of color all the time. And that’s why they remain under-represented. This notion of cultural fit– there is some little tiny grain of truth in that. But mostly, culture fit is a huge umbrella for bias.

We ought to be focusing on, as this gentleman said, who has the skills to do the job, not, do I look like somebody you’d like to play ping pong with or have a beer with. And that’s where I have a lot of hope for the people ops tech companies that are coming up.

So for instance, to this gentleman’s issue, there is a platform. A company called Interviewing.io has created an anonymous platform for doing coding interviews. So we don’t know the gender of the person.

We don’t know the race of the person. We don’t know where they went to school. What we immediately start with is their coding ability. So if you get a flying colors on a coding test, then it’s much easier to walk in and be someone who looks different than who they hire, because they already know you can do what they do every day.

IRA FLATOW: We’re talking with Freada Kapor Klein, in case you joined us, talking about Silicon Valley and issues of bias. Twitter received criticism recently for their pick of Jeffrey Siminov who was a white and a male to head their diversity team. I mean, any thoughts on that?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, certainly. I think that everybody can and should be involved in diversity and inclusion efforts. What I understand is that the employee resource group, Blackbirds, the employee resource group of black employees at Twitter and the employee resource group for Latinas and Latinos was not involved in the hiring.

If both of those groups had a voice in the hiring and said, this is the person we want to head this function, I’d have no problem with a Caucasian male who is also out gay. And what we should talk about the LGBT community also being recipients of some bias in the workplace. I think it’s really about the process. It’s not just about the demographics.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Freada Kapor Klein, who’s a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and founder of the Level Playing Field Institute out in Oakland, California. I understand that Intel is offering bonuses of up to $4000 for employees that refer women, minorities, and veterans. Is this the right track to take? Does this work, or is it sort of, your heart’s in the right place but it’s misguided?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: I think it takes a series of well-integrated measures to accomplish diversity goals and inclusion goals. So I applaud that Intel has taken such a thorough approach– again, transparency, accountability, putting a lot of money behind it, lots of different initiatives.

I do think, since so much of the tech ecosystem relies on employee referrals and all of the research says, most of us have friends that look like us, I think you have to make extra effort. If these companies already give a double or triple employee referral bonus for recommending, let’s say, a full stack engineer of a certain kind because that engineering talent is in short supply, I think it’s an important statement to say, diversity helps our business. And we are therefore going to provide a greater incentive to achieve that goal.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Lisa in Davis, California. Hi, Lisa.

LISA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. That is the perfect segue to my question about, how do you establish or get the message across that diversity does actually increase the excellence of a company or an institution? I think some people overlook that core tenet.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for the call.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: A great question. There has been lots of rigorous research on diverse work teams as well as diversity in the senior ranks of companies. McKinsey did a study just about a year ago, early 2015, looking sector by sector. Turns out that gender diversity in the senior ranks of a company within a sector compared to its competitors increases its financial performance and profitability by 15%.

That number jumps to 35% when we’re looking at racial and ethnic diversity in the senior ranks of a company relative to its competitors. So if you’re just looking at rational business decisions, if you’re just looking at the bottom line, you should be going after diversity.

IRA FLATOW: Makes good business sense.


IRA FLATOW: And why would you have to convince anybody of the numbers if they speak for themselves?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: The numbers absolutely speak for themselves. What you’re raising is a really fascinating issue of what we call hidden bias. So looking at those subtle, day to day practices and assumptions, we’ve learned so much about how hidden bias operates from advances in neuroscience. So the human brain is wired to be biased.

So when we look at a resume, we are influenced, even though we may not consciously recognize it, we are influenced by the name at the top of that resume. Study after study after study shows that an African-American-sounding name on a resume, that person with identical qualifications gets 50% fewer callbacks for an interview than a quote, unquote, “white-sounding” name on a resume.

IRA FLATOW: Freada, stay with us. We have to take a break. We’ll finish that thought when we get back, OK?


IRA FLATOW: Freada Kapor Klein is a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. We’re going to take a break. Our number– you can call it. 844-724-8255. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about making tech a more diverse workplace with my guest, Freada Kapor Klein, partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and founder of the Level Playing Field Institute based out of Oakland, California. Lots of interest in this from our listeners– let’s take a few calls. Let’s go to Paul in San Jose. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

PAUL: Thanks, Ira, big time. I’m grateful– first thing, I should preface, my mother, back in the ’60s and ’70s was a working woman. And I have two daughters of my own. So I am all for gender diversity.

But having been within the ranks, I see that sometimes the intentions end up leading to a reverse discrimination, where you see a lot of capable men being passed over for promotions just because the goals have to be met towards having an equal number of women in the managerial positions.

Take Cisco, for example. If you look at the number of executives that the new CEO appointed, you will find that he has six out of 12 women as his staff, as his immediate executive staff. But the number of men and women within Cisco, the ratio is far towards men. So if you do take into account that men and women are equally capable, how do you account for the fact that there are more women being represented in the executive positions than men? And I’ll take my answer off the air.


FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, I think, the caller has raise a number of interesting and highly nuanced concerns. It’s very important to understand, what are the specific responsibilities and capabilities for each level of position? And again, as you point out, it makes perfect business sense to have diversity.

So if diversity makes business sense, then we do want to make sure that it exists at every level of the organization. You know, schools have this problem. Schools think, well, let’s just admit everybody who got perfect SAT scores, and not paying attention to who has access to getting perfect SAT scores.

Also, if all you do is hire clones of each other, people who are capable of doing the same thing, you don’t get any of those advantages of diversity, especially in terms of innovation. So I think you have to write your requirements for executive leadership positions and every other level of position that include the people skills as well as what might be the hard coding skills or sales skills or other capabilities. So it is both art and science, in terms of constructing a large workforce.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one more call in before we have to go. Kyle in Boston– hi, Kyle.

KYLE: Hi, how are you? Thanks for taking my call. I was one of the early employees with the Monster Board. Freada may remember this, back up in Maynard, Massachusetts, about 20 years ago. What I see going on right now is that companies are forcing their HR and their recruiting teams to really chase after purple squirrels. What I mean by that is that you’ve got a finite number of female engineers graduating from the top engineering schools.

You’ve got a finite number of African-American engineers coming out of these schools as well with good grades. And yet, you’re placing pressure on an Intel or a Google to get 10% or 20% of hires when they aren’t out there. They’re just not out there. So I think it’s kind of, again, chasing purple squirrels and forcing companies to hire people who just aren’t out there.

IRA FLATOW: But there are many studies that show that we graduate enough as scientists and engineers, plenty of scientists and engineers in universities, to fill all the jobs in America.

KYLE: To fill all the engineering jobs?

IRA FLATOW: To fill the engineering– I can quote you– I don’t want to go through them now, but I can quote you the studies– the Urban Institute on talked about that there are plenty of graduates who could take those jobs.

KYLE: So you’re saying there are– you can tell me how many African-American graduates out of top engineering school like UCLA and Stanford?

IRA FLATOW: I can’t tell you what percentage of them are, but let me ask Freada about whether the point that Kyle’s making is a valid one.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, we have both a pipeline problem and a leaky pipeline problem. And I heard there, if I think I heard you correctly, Kyle, I think you started to mention Stanford and another school. We have a huge set of biases towards what it means to graduate from a particular school. And those are proxies, not actual qualifications.

So for instance, I mentioned earlier the people ops technology companies that are proliferating, there are a couple of companies– Make School for one, Learners’ Guild is another– that are just starting out that are offering alternative computer science and engineering degrees, competitive with absolutely top schools, but that don’t require you to go into extraordinary debt.

So I think what we need to do is to say, wait a second. Which criteria do we use now, and how biased are they? So we want to be plugging the pipeline problem and the leaky pipeline problem at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: One last point to be made before we have to go. I know that you and your husband, Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, are pledging to invest in tech companies addressing diversity issues. What are you looking for in a company?

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Well, our pledge is, if you’re talking about our founders’ commitment through Kapor Capital, we are asking our founders to set goals, but not cookie cutter goals. We’re asking them to set goals that make sense for their business. So we’re asking them to think about how closely over time can your employees demographically match your customers, for instance.

We’re asking them to invest in resources to achieve their goal. And we’re supporting them in doing that. We’re asking them to volunteer and get engaged in the communities in which they live and work and where their customers live and work. And we’re asking them to educate their workforce about all of these fascinating issues of pipeline problems and leaky pipeline problems and hidden bias.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ve run out of time and I think your line is deteriorating. So we’ll say goodbye. Thank you, Freada. Freada Kapor Klein is a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact and founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, based out of Oakland, California.

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