Pinterest's Data-Driven Approach to Improving Diversity
Like many of its tech-industry peers, Pinterest has struggled to build a workforce that includes women and minorities. It's hoping a new strategy will help change that.
In October 2013, Pinterest became one of the first tech companies to share hard data on the demographic breakdown of its employees. In a Medium post, the engineer Tracy Chou revealed that 11 of Pinterest’s 89 engineers (12 percent) were women, before pressing other companies to publicize the same information about their workforces. “As an engineer and someone who’s had ‘data-driven design’ browbeaten into me by Silicon Valley, I can’t imagine trying to solve a problem where the real metrics, the ones we’re setting our goals against, are obfuscated,” Chou wrote.
The following year, Google, Facebook, and a host of other tech companies followed suit, releasing numbers that exposed the stark lack of gender and racial diversity within their organizations. Last year, referencing Chou’s 2013 push for more data, Pinterest published a blog post outlining specific diversity targets for 2016, including upping the proportion of women on its full-time engineering staff to 30 percent, and the proportion of minority engineers to 8 percent. And last week, the company announced that it was hiring its first head of diversity, Candice Morgan, to help it reach those goals.
Amidst the ongoing scrutiny on disparities within tech, plenty of other companies, including Apple and Twitter, have created roles similar to Morgan’s. The growing popularity of these leadership positions seems to be a sign that the tech industry, broadly speaking, is taking a more structured approach to combating its ongoing problems with sexism and racial discrimination. (Or, more cynically, it at least wants to appear that way.)
Morgan noted that having a designated person tackling diversity issues is a vital step towards actually making changes. “Just as you have a CFO who is an expert in finance or a Head of Engineering, a diversity leader is needed to provide advice, strategic direction, and ongoing accountability,” she said via email.
According to Pinterest, 19 percent of its engineers are now women, less than 1 percent are black, and about 1 percent are Hispanic. Overall, 49 percent of its employees are white, 43 percent are Asian, and 58 percent are men. The company is currently focusing on two main strategies to diversify its workforce: expanding its recruitment efforts to new universities, and developing programs to solicit more applications from underrepresented groups. Pinterest has also implemented a practice derived from the NFL’s Rooney Rule, requiring that its hiring managers interview at least one woman and one underrepresented minority for each open leadership positions. (Since the NFL established this rule for minority candidates applying for head-coaching positions in 2003, the proportion of minorities in these roles has doubled, from 10 percent to 20 percent.)
Other tech companies are also trying out comparable strategies to improve their internal diversity: The Google in Residence program embeds the company’s engineers at historically black colleges and universities across the country to teach and recruit students, and Facebook is piloting a Rooney Rule of its own, requiring managers to interview a “diverse slate” of candidates for job openings.
As Pinterest’s head of diversity, Morgan will spearhead the implementation of two new recruitment programs, called Pinterest Engage (an eight-week internship) and the Pinterest Apprenticeship Program (a one-year stint at the company), both aimed at hiring from groups currently underrepresented in fields like computer science and software engineering. Previously, Morgan has cautioned against the pitfalls of hiring for cultural fit, which in practice can mean simply looking for people who are similar to those who already work there. (Evan Sharp, one of the company’s co-founders, has said that Pinterest’s current referral system for job openings often results in more white and Asian male candidates.)
Of course, revamping hiring practices is only a part of what’s needed to improve diversity and inclusion within a company. Morgan will also work on strengthening internal policies that combat sexism and racial discrimination in promotions, wages, and the company culture more broadly. In an email, she noted that Pinterest would be relying on a “strong dashboard of metrics” to monitor employee retention and advancement across groups, as well as to ensure accountability at all levels. Pinterest also requires its employees to undergo training on unconscious bias, and has begun working with a startup called Paradigm that monitors employee pay, promotions, and the type of feedback different candidates receive during interviews.
Elsewhere in the tech industry, efforts to diversify have seen mixed success. Shortly before Morgan’s position was announced, Twitter hired Jeffrey Siminoff—a white man who had previously served as Apple’s director of worldwide inclusion and diversity—as its new vice president overseeing diversity, a decision that’s prompted some backlash. And year-over-year improvements at some companies have been somewhat stagnant—for example, Facebook, which hired a global head of diversity in 2013, saw the proportion of men in technical positions fall just 1 percent between 2014 and 2015, from 85 percent to 84.
As outlined by its 2016 numbers, Pinterest’s goal of increasing the number of female engineers by 10 percent in one year is a great deal more ambitious. Morgan is optimistic: “One of the main differences is that Pinterest started this very early,” as one of the first tech companies to publish concrete diversity goals, she said. “We have a chance now to really shape the kind of company we want to be in years to come.” If the industry’s past is any indication, though, meeting these targets is going to be much harder than simply setting them was.