Tech Talk: Diversity Discourse in Silicon Valley
Nearly a decade ago, Google released figures disclosing the diversity of its workforce (or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof). The statistics were damning: less than 17% of Google’s technical employees were women, and only 2% of workers identified as Black.
Since then, the tech industry’s “diversity problem” has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. In 2017, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post detailing the sexism she experienced at the company. A few months later, then Google engineer James Damore published what became known as the “Google Memo,” criticizing efforts to increase diversity at the company. Yet despite this attention, major tech companies including Meta, Google, and Apple continue to release yearly diversity reports indicating that the industry remains predominately White, Asian, and male.Amid such heightened scrutiny, how do tech workers make sense of diversity at their own companies? This is a question that I investigated in my recent Social Problems article. Drawing on interviews with 50 tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, I found that despite recognizing diversity as an issue in the tech industry more broadly, workers often described their own companies as “better than most.” Tech workers supported this claim using three interrelated strategies: 1) drawing relative comparisons with other tech companies; 2) citing evidence of efforts companies are making to increase diversity; and 3) using expansive definitions of the term diversity.
When discussing diversity at their own companies, tech workers often drew comparisons with other tech companies to cast their own employer in a positive light. For example, news about Susan Fowler’s blog and the “Google Memo” were focal points for many tech workers. Even as the point of contrast shifted with the news cycle, workers could always find another company that was worse when it came to diversity.
One respondent, Joe, noticed this pattern. Joe confided that when diversity was discussed at his workplace, it was typically mentioned “in reference to other companies.” He explained,
All this Uber news that’s coming out, about how horrible they are there, we talk about that a lot and have a lot of frank discussions about it. But that’s more of a reaction to that stuff that’s happening. There’s not a lot of, “How can we be better?” [It’s like] “at least we’re not that bad.”
Despite demonstrating a significant degree of self-awareness, Joe ultimately employed this same strategy of relative comparison in his evaluation of his company’s diversity initiatives when concluding that he would rate his company “a little better than average” when it came to diversity.
Evidence of EffortA second way that tech workers define their companies as “better than most” is by emphasizing their company’s efforts rather than outcomes. Words like “effort” and “trying” were common in these answers. Actual diversity statistics were not. An example emerged in an interview with Andrei who, when asked about diversity at his company, told me, “I think we might be slightly better than the industry average, because I think we put a lot of effort into that.”
In recent years, most large tech companies have introduced a range of highly publicized policies aimed at increasing diversity. There is, however, a distinction between having diversity initiatives and having effective diversity initiatives. Many of the initiatives that tech companies have implemented, such as unconscious bias trainings, are known to be ineffective. Yet, in the eyes of some workers, the existence of these diversity efforts has become more salient than their results.
Expansive Definitions of Diversity
A final way that workers describe their workplaces as “better than most” is by using expansive definitions of diversity. While gender and race were mentioned most frequently when discussing diversity in the abstract, workers often discussed diversity in terms of geography or education when asked more specifically about their own companies. During his interview, Louis described his company as “surprisingly diverse”:
These expansive definitions of diversity give workers—as well as their companies—flexibility in terms of how they make sense of their diversity statistics. Their workplaces may lack racial or gender diversity, but tech workers were quick to point out that they featured other forms of diversity. By taking an expansive view of diversity, highlighting axes such as nationality, geography, or educational pedigree, workers were able to characterize their workplaces as diverse despite persistent racial and gender imbalances.
The ratio of women in tech is significantly higher there. There are a lot of Canadians, a lot of Asians. I think that helps better than just all White or whatever. Stereotypical White. But even within White, there is a degree of diversity if you’re from Chicago. We have a lot of people from Chicago, the Midwest, New York. I think that’s healthy, rather than just being from Stanford. At [my last job], a lot were just from Stanford.
Better than Most
Do companies benefit from this diversity discourse? Only if their true goal is to maintain the status quo. By making relative comparisons, tech workers point to other tech companies that they see as worse when it comes to diversity. By citing evidence of effort, respondents see any diversity efforts as progress, even if the efforts themselves are ineffective. Finally, by using expansive definitions, tech workers reimagine diversity in ways that extend well beyond the axes of exclusion their company’s diversity initiatives were designed to address. These strategies ultimately allow employees to perceive of their companies as “better than most.” But they may also produce a form of complacency that leaves companies with little incentive to enact more lasting and effective diversity initiatives.
Sigrid Luhr is in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She studies gender, work, and family.