Silicon Valley barriers, not lack of skills, impede diversity

Freada Kapor Klein

By Freada Kapor Klein

Facebook has become the latest high-profile tech company to release its diversity numbers. Like Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn before it, Facebook’s numbers present a disturbingly homogenous picture. From engineers to accountants, Facebookers are overwhelmingly white or Asian, and decidedly male.

These results are disappointing, but not surprising. For all its promise and opportunity, Silicon Valley has long been insular, clubby and steeped in the pernicious myth of the meritocracy. We are colorblind and gender-blind, the story goes, and we only hire the best talent available.

But if we accept that on its face, are we to conclude that blacks, Latinos and women of all backgrounds are simply not as smart as white and Asian men, or that genius is disproportionately concentrated in race-based subsets of the population?

Of course not. Yet, until now, so many of the solutions to the tech-pipeline problem have focused on changing behavior within the underrepresented populations themselves.

The reality is that most of the barriers are structural. Even for those with the requisite skills, the unwritten rules still deny them access. How are young black and Latino men supposed to learn Silicon Valley’s cultural cues if they have had no access? How are women supposed to walk the fine line between being perceived as unconfident and too aggressive if only insiders know where that line exists? The lack of a “warm introduction” also serves as a barrier for underrepresented communities.

Even if the candidate makes it past these barriers, then the excuse of “not a good culture fit” will be applied and likely knock them out of the running. Simply put, one cannot lean in if one is locked out.

As research has borne out again and again, women are frequently perceived to be less competent in science no matter what they do. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences study described a subtle but persistent bias that shadows women entering scientific professions. Faculty hirers, men and women alike, tend to favor male over female applicants for entry-level lab positions. While they found female applicants “likable,” the men were perceived to be more competent, worth higher salaries and, crucially, more deserving of mentoring.

This problem is amplified for women of color. In a 2013 study of adolescent women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields by the Level Playing Field Institute, girls of color were found to be far less likely to have access to science resources and facilities at school, and also were limited by stereotypes based both on gender and race.

In a classic 2003 experiment, economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan sent two sets of nearly identical resumes to employers, the only difference being the names at the top: Greg, Emily, Jamal and Lakisha. While the researchers anticipated minor differences between the two groups, Greg and Emily received fully 50 percent more callbacks than Jamal and Lakisha. Women like Lakisha aren’t just fighting for a seat at the table; they are still struggling to get in the door.

In a less explicit but equally pernicious way, many job seekers find themselves weeded out of the hiring process by violating the unspoken rules of Silicon Valley culture, like wearing a suit to an interview or not being interested in drinks with the twentysomething bosses. Indeed, ageism in tech has led to a plastic surgery boom in the Silicon Valley.

Our sector is permeated by biases, both subtle and not so subtle. We should be encouraged that some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley have taken the first step toward dealing with the issue, but real solutions will require a long-term commitment to a deep cultural change.

Silicon Valley’s diversity problems are systemic, and no amount of individual coaching is going to change that. It’s time to address the biases that permeate all aspects of the pipeline.

Freada Kapor Klein is co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact and the author of “Giving Notice: Why the Best and Brightest Are Leaving the Workplace and How You Can Help them Stay.” To comment, submit your letter to the editor via our online form at