Tallying Female Workers Isn't Enough to Make Tech More Diverse

Okay. So. We have all this data. We have acknowledgement from leaders in tech that we have a long way to go. We have a baseline of sorts. We also know that the numbers alone don't foment change.

Now what? Assuming the goal is to get to 50/50—workforce representation that reflects the gender makeup in the real world—how long could that take? And by what means? (Based on how long it has taken for the gender pay gap to shrink, it could take another half-century for women to get equal pay, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.) 

What kind of commitment can we expect from tech companies to keep us posted about their progress? Demographic information about workers isn't available for individual companies through public records. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics has industry-wide data broken down by gender and race, but it doesn't have specifics from individual companies, agency spokesman David Kong told me. And it's clear that women and most non-whites are underrepresented, but "whether there's social discrimination or whatever, those are things I can't talk about as a government employee," he said.

Within the tech industry itself, including among some women in leadership, there are those who say the issue is nearly resolved. Many companies have taken steps to add more women to their ranks, they say, and it will be only a matter of time before workforce censuses reflect those changes.

"I do agree that there is a low percentage of women in technology and it's definitely not where we want it to be, but I do think we need to be a bit careful not to overhype the issue," said Pam Murphy, who is the COO of Infor and worked for more than a decade at Oracle before that. "I think the current generation of college graduates will look back at this and wonder why this got so much attention... There's nothing which is prohibiting women coming into this industry. There's no roadblocks."

If the industry cannot agree that there are obstacles to women entering the industry in the first place, it's no wonder the scope of the conversation is limited. Even those who fixate on diversity in tech often focus too narrowly on gender. "We'll talk about the fact that there's sexism in tech, but we won't talk about the fact that there's racism," said Tiffani Ashley Bell, CEO of scheduling app Pencil You In. "I feel like that's the safe conversation. And mostly white women are highlighted, and mostly white women are talking about the issue—and they're going to see it from that perspective."

Bell says that without a more open and inclusive conversation about diversity in tech, a few high-profile blog posts about workforce numbers isn't going to make a difference. "You can be well intentioned, but if you don't act on it—if you're not actually doing anything—change is not going to come about just from you wanting to be inclusive," Bell said. "It has to be something you're actively doing. If you want to be more inclusive there are ways to do it."

Sharing data is part of the solution, but it has to be linked with meaningful initiatives to change corporate practices. Companies should release annual reports detailing their progress and publicly assessing the workforce diversification strategies that have and haven't worked. That's the next step.

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Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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