During CES 2015 I was approached by a woman who worked for Facebook. It was fairly random: we’d just happened to be walking off of the same crowded elevator, and she asked me if I wanted to attend a panel that was taking place the next day, a meeting about diversity and tech leadership. Natural curiosity made me want to check out the event for a couple of reasons: 1. to find out what a Facebook-hosted private gathering at CES would look like, and 2. to see just what people would have to say about increasing diversity in tech fields.
As a black tech/game journalist, I’m familiar with the issue of low diversity in tech fields. Hell, it’s as if the idea of being black and a nerd/geek provides novelty and branding potential the same way that being a hockey mom running for Vice President of the United States does. But before I was a journalist, I worked at a large healthcare IT company, one which employed over 6,000 people on a sprawling, Google-esque campus, and I would joke with my co-workers about how easy it was for people to recognize me on campus because I was basically the only black man there. By the time I left the company a year and a half later, we joked that the company must’ve been working really hard at recruiting; we could now think of at least 4 different black people on campus (myself included), perhaps with a goal of getting one per building.
Though I don’t have the hard statistics to back it up, my personal experience with the company says that, in many respects, they held a similar demographic composition to Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other modern tech giants: dominantly male, and racially dramatically white and Asian. A small media firestorm erupted over this when Facebook released its own diversity figures in late June last year, but then things became rather quiet in the media as time rolled on. But tech companies are taking steps to try and bridge that gap, and discussions like the one Facebook put on during CES are part of that solution.
Facebook’s “Diversity, Tech, and Leadership” panel was a small gathering in a hotel conference room. Roughly 60-75 businesspeople gathered and listened to a discussion led by Facebook’s Global Head of Diversity, Maxine Williams. Two prominent black entrepreneurs gave their personal stories of success and struggle, then the audience weighed in themselves with opinions and advice about how to bring more minority representation into the technology world. Executives, venture capitalists, business owners, and more were there, predominantly of color. There was no screening of questions beforehand, no moderator cutting off people at the microphone: just honest, open discussion about people’s experiences bringing their individuality to the business world.
Before you start wondering, this panel was not actually open to the public, nor was it open to the press. My invitation was extended to me as a member of the audience, not a journalist, and I attended the event as such. This piece doesn’t feature names of attendees or attribute quotes to them because I believe there should be safe places for honest discussion, but that there was also a story in this room worth telling, one that I’ve had a hard time putting together myself. People often talk about diversity issues like there are special, kente-cloth or rainbow-swaddled solutions, but Williams summarized the discussion to with three basic actions everyone in the room could take: Be your authentic self, be confident, and build community.
Sure, at the panel they talked about the “pipeline problem:” the idea that there simply aren’t enough qualified minority applicants looking to fill these positions in tech. But unlike many internet-based discussions I see on the topic, they didn’t stop there: they developed actionable solutions to make the situation better. By being your “authentic self” in the workplace, not only do you do better work and feel better about what you’re doing, but you expose your co-workers to new viewpoints while making the workplace safer for other people who don’t automatically fit in to the workplace culture. Being confident, even when you feel like you’re stepping out of line, shows others that you’re capable of handling the content that’s given to you. Building community allows you to pass on the skills you’ve learned to others, and broadens the resource pool for the future.
Each of these steps are simple, but don’t confuse simple with easy. All three of these steps involve people already “in the pipeline,” both minority and majority, to reach outside of their personal comfort zones. Being your “authentic self,” particularly when it’s a self that people around you aren’t used to, will probably take some discomfort and discussion before people adjust. Being confident in your work and potential when you’re used to playing up to someone higher on the corporate ladder may be intimidating, but can also create new growth potential for yourself and others. Building community may be the most important, though: it’ll take an outreach from the tech world to the rest of the world, an appeal from those who know to those who don’t, to bring them in to the fold and teach them the skills for success.
If you’re reading this and thinking it’s just a Facebook issue or a Silicon Valley issue, guess again. Around the country there are cities thriving due to technology; those cities also tend to squeeze out the middle-and-lower classes that aren’t in the tech industry. Rents rise in apartments in cities like San Francisco, CA, but also in cities like Austin, TX, and Madison, WI, making it even harder for those outside the pipeline to get hold of the resources they need to find their way in to the pipeline. Through volunteering, sponsoring, or just general cooperation with local schools and resource centers, companies all over can build their communities, both in a local sense, and in a business sense as well.
Near the end of the night, a woman in the audience who owned a business said she’d been looking for someone to fill a role in her company. Just that night prior, one of the panelists, a man she’d worked with on a project before, networked her to another woman that was perfect for the job, a woman who also happened to be black. Talking about the experience, she said this: “So, guess what, it’s reciprocal… It is not easy, it is really hard at times, but we all have to do it. It’s almost that simple…we almost need to stop having these conversations and just do it.” It’s a sentiment many of us have heard, one that comes from frustration with the current state of affairs and a desire for a better future. It’s a great sentiment, but we have to continue talks like these in addition to taking action if we want to make progress.
Facebook is having these conversations, and the rest of us are, too. We’ve acknowledged that there’s a problem, and if we actually want to solve it, then we need to take action. if people are going to be comfortable being themselves, if people are going to feel confidence in their workplaces, and if a community of tolerant, qualified, diverse leaders is going to grow, in the tech world or otherwise, then the conversations must continue. We must acknowledge when we’ve fallen short, but we also have to recognize when we’re making progress and continue on that path, even when it just happens in a hotel conference room during CES.