Getting Real on Diversity in Tech: Three Tactics That Will Actually Make a Change

These tips can apply in any industry sector.

On Oct. 13, at Quartz’s The Next Billion conference in San Francisco, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on diversity in tech with Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, and Kate Mitchell, a co-founder of Scale Venture Partners.

Panelists like these notwithstanding, the tech industry is powered largely by white men, from developers and product managers all the way up to founders, CEOs, and the venture capitalists who fund them. Even when big companies like Intel and Facebook put forth efforts to change their hiring and career-retention processes, change is slow to come.

Mitchell and Bryant offered insight into the tactics they use to make tech more inclusive. Here are three that we can all learn from, and apply in any industry sector:

Take the risk to talk candidly about diversity

Mitchell spoke about the importance of taking risks in the way that we speak about diversity.

“That risk that you all have to take, for men, [is] learning to ask questions,” says Mitchell. “I say to men, I learned, to sit down in the communities of color. ‘Is it Latino/Latina or is it Hispanic? What is the right phraseology I should use?’ ‘Is it black or African American?’ Take those risks so that we begin to talk about it … and build those bridges and get it out of the closet.”

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson implied something similar in a recent speech to employees when he said, “Our communities are being destroyed by racial tensions. And we’re too polite to talk about it.”

Implement fact-based hiring

It’s easy to focus on hiring from within our own networks. But this often doesn't yield diversity.

“[I]f we don’t take this very intentional approach to diversity, then it won’t happen as we’re building our companies,” Bryant said.

Even then, there are pitfalls, because of the biases of the people doing the hiring. (An example Mitchell used is: “I might not have asked every candidate the same questions.”)

One way to get around this is to insist on “fact-based” hiring, so that you are comparing candidates fairly. Mitchell cited tools like HackerRank and Unitive that facilitate fact-based hiring.

Bryant also promoted the idea. “We use these tools in our hiring as well, it’s expensive for us to use this particular tool that we do use [] but I want to at least get through the first phase of interviews with some very fact-based, data-driven measures to be able to segment my pool."

Mitchell suggested breaking down hiring analytics into smaller segments as a better way to tackle the issue. For instance, look specifically at your company’s new engineer hires, or at the experiences of black employees who are leaving your company, rather than trying to digest big-picture numbers that often don’t get to the root of the issues or reveal changes.

Recognize that there is a time and place for quotas

Bryant pointed out that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for companies. Startups that are building a diverse company from day one are in a different position than older companies that need to revamp the makeup of their staff. Their strategies shouldn’t be the same. Bryant said:

“I think that if companies build for diversity from the beginning from the ground up, that’s definitely the ideal state for how to build diversity into your company. But if you’re a more mature company that’s been around for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and you’re still having diversity issues I think a more targeted effort that may involve setting a quota or number for the number of hires you’re going to attract over a period of time is a good solution. I don’t think quotas are necessarily an evil. I think when we look at industry in general back to the ’60s and the ’50s, the way more diverse people like my dad and mom’s generation were able to break into industry was because of affirmation action, because of quotas. But that doesn’t mean we undervalue the quality of the individual coming into work. That was just opening up opportunities to people who didn’t have those opportunities in the past.”