The Realities of Silicon Valley's Lack of Workforce Diversity


Oct 2, 2014

Young man working at computer outside

Photo by tinx/Fotolia

Photo by tinx/Fotolia

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on October 1, 2014.

During the last several months, one by one, the major Silicon Valley tech firms have released long-sought statistics that proved what many industry watchers believed was obvious — their workforces are largely made up of white men.

Apple was the latest to serve up transparency on diversity, revealing that 80 percent of its tech workers are male and 54 percent are white. This was hardly shocking, as it came on the heels of the release of strikingly similar numbers from other tech giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter. The firms acknowledged the lack of diversity in their workforces and pledged to do better.

In trying to understand and then recommend remedies for the lack of diversity among the nation's military leaders, we have come to several conclusions that are equally relevant for Silicon Valley.

First is the ways diversity benchmarks are calculated. The obvious benchmark are statistics that show the U.S. population of 18- to 34-year-olds to be roughly 60 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic, 14 percent African American, and 6 percent Asian and other, and just under 50 percent male. But as far as an organization is concerned, whether it is the U.S. military or a public or private corporation, the more appropriate benchmark is the qualified entry-level workforce. For example, we estimate the population of those qualified to be commissioned as Air Force officers to be 80 percent white, 6 percent African American, 6 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian and other. Much of the difference in the population versus qualified-population benchmarks for Air Force officers resides in the requirement that Air Force officers have a college degree.

Second, for both the U.S. military and Silicon Valley, the career choices of racial-ethnic and gender populations also matter. One impediment to the advancement of minorities in the Air Force into senior ranks is that they do not choose to enter flying careers to the same degree as whites. Surely population differences in college graduation rates and in choosing science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees has similar effects on the diversity of the Silicon Valley workforce. Corporate America is on the receiving end of a complex chain of social and educational factors that continue to leave minorities behind in terms of college graduation, and both minorities and women behind in terms of STEM degrees.

From a public policy standpoint, the important messages that can be derived from research by RAND are that organizations' diversity should be judged relative to appropriate benchmarks, and that society bears the burden of remedying the ills that lead to the benchmarks not matching population statistics. So the important questions are not really why the tech workforce is so heavily white and male, but why minorities lag in educational development and why different population groups make different career choices.

Once those questions are answered, it's appropriate to ask what role, if any, society should play in expanding career choices for minorities. And finally, what responsibilities do corporations have in terms of social and educational development as participants in our society?

Lawrence Hanser and Nelson Lim are senior social scientists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and professors at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

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