Yahoo, Facebook and Google have all disclosed low minority hiring numbers in recent months. (AP, AFP/Getty, Reuters)

Yahoo disclosed last week that African Americans made up just 2 percent of its workers, while Hispanics stood at 4 percent. Those revelations came days after Facebook reported that in 2014 it had employed just 81 blacks among its 5,500 U.S. workers.

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, a contentious issue that has come into sharper focus in recent months as tech firms have sheepishly released updates on their hiring of minorities. The companies have pledged to do better. Many point to the talent pipeline as one of the main culprits. They’d hire if they could, but not enough black and Hispanic students are pursuing computer science degrees, they say.

But fresh data show that top schools are turning out black and Hispanic graduates with tech degrees at rates significantly higher than they are being hired by leading tech firms.

Last year, black students took home 4.1 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science, information technology and computer engineering, according to an annual survey by the Computing Research Association of 121 top U.S. and Canadian colleges. That’s double the average of blacks hired at the biggest tech firms. Hispanics accounted for 7.7 percent of the degrees.

“It would be a more convincing argument if their numbers more closely tracked what we were producing,” said Stuart Zweben, an Ohio State computer science professor who helps conduct the survey. And Silicon Valley’s diversity problem exists not just on the tech side.

Tech’s diversity problem: It’s not just a pipeline issue

Tech’s largest firms also significantly lag in their hiring of minorities for sales, marketing and public relations jobs.

At Google, blacks and Hispanics each accounted for just
4 percent of Google’s non-
technical workforce last year. At Facebook, blacks made up 3 percent of its non-tech workforce in May, while Hispanics were at
7 percent.

In the overall U.S. workforce, blacks made up 13 percent of employees and Hispanics were at 16 percent.

The lack of minorities in Silicon Valley has been met by a rising sense of urgency. Firms began disclosing their diversity data last year under pressure from groups such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. And those numbers have underscored the extent of the problem in this tech hotbed, where former start-ups have matured into some of the nation’s leading economic engines. Further doubts about workplace equality in Silicon Valley were stoked this year by the high-profile trial involving former Reddit chief executive Ellen Pao, who lost her sex discrimination case against storied venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Jackson rebutted claims by companies that there simply isn’t a robust talent pool of blacks and Latinos. He for years attended shareholder meetings for Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google and demanded that the companies release data on their workforces.

“They aren’t looking in the right places,” Jackson said in an interview. “And this doesn’t answer the question of why the vast majority of their workforce — which is non-tech — is also lacking diversity.”

Challenging issue

For a tech sector accustomed to hacking its way out of problems, making its workforce more diverse has emerged as a major challenge. And the industry has only recently admitted its shortcomings. Until last year, Google, Apple and Facebook, among others, declined to disclose data on workforce diversity. Some firms — such as Oracle, which has 122,000 workers worldwide and declined to respond to a request for comment for this article — still haven’t. Yahoo also declined to comment.

In tech’s data-driven world, the numbers were bruising. For example, Facebook’s data showed that it added only seven black employees from 2012 to 2013, before hiring 36 between 2013 and 2014.

“We know we have work to do,” said Ime Archibong, a Yale grad who is black and works at Facebook as its strategic partnerships director. “We know that.”

Others said it will take time for efforts to reflect in their employment data.

“The pipeline is just a piece of it. Our main issue is that any meaningful change for a company our size takes time,” said Roya Soleimani, a spokeswoman at Google.

Facebook’s challenge is that it is looking for a very specific group of computer science graduates, for instance, people who understand data systems and algorithms, said Maxine Williams, the global head of diversity at Facebook.

“We are trying desperately to have a more diverse workforce and deal with the constraints on the pipeline,” Williams said.

But some in the tech world believe the focus on the pipeline overshadows the wealth of qualified minority candidates already out there.

“It’s not even remotely a pipeline issue,” said Andrea Hoffman, who runs Culture Shift Labs, which helps companies find minority and female talent. Her company recently hosted a brunch in Palo Alto, Calif., for minority job-seekers in tech and finance. The 200 seats were snapped up, and she had to make a waiting list for 200 more.

“For anybody to tell me the talent isn’t out there,” she said, “I know emphatically that’s not true.”

Asians are the exception. They have been hired at rates far above other minority groups and even above their representation in the overall U.S. workforce. At Facebook, for example, 41 percent of the tech workforce is Asian.

The strong recruitment of Asians is attributed to the hiring of skilled immigrants, particularly from China and India, and high U.S. graduate rates of Asians in computer science programs. Asians have also established tight-knit networking organizations such as The Indus Entrepreneurs, or TIE, a business networking group that began in 1992 in Silicon Valley and now has
13,000 members around the world.

Tackling bias

Big tech companies, aside from their concerns about the pipeline, also point to a tangle of challenges, including unconscious biases that have given preference to white men. That bias shows up in recruiting, with companies drawing from the same top universities, where black and Hispanic graduates are still lagging behind other groups.

“Once you have a Latina Marissa Mayer and a black Mark Zuckerberg, a lot of these problems will go away,” said Van Jones, one of the founders of Yes We Code, a group that aims to teach 100,000 low-income people to write computer code. “The pipeline isn’t big enough, and the uptake isn’t aggressive enough.”

The problem is particularly acute at start-ups, where black founders are just 1 percent of venture-invested firms, according to a 2011 survey by CB Insights. Venture capital firms — mostly led by white men — have admitted that they are often introduced to start-ups from their own business contacts — also largely white men. And then the big firms acquire these start-ups or hire from them in a self-perpetuating pattern.

More comprehensive data on the number of black and Latino partners at venture firms isn’t yet available, said Kate Mitchell, a partner at Scale Venture Partners and the head of a diversity task force for the National Venture Capital Association trade group.

“I think it says something that we don’t even have the numbers,” Mitchell said. “How do we even know it’s a problem if we don’t have the numbers to show it exists?”

There is a rich body of research that shows how big companies used specific plans to increase diversity. A 2015 study by the McKinsey consulting firm showed that companies with more diversity in leadership were 35 percent more likely to report financial returns above their national industry median.

The issue of diversity “hasn’t moved into the top priorities so that it is something the CEOs are talking about constantly,” said Megan Smith, the national chief technology officer, who was appointed by President Obama to lead tech policy. “That is something the research shows works; that if your leadership team is constantly talking about it and iterating on it just like they would on products and businesses, that will move the needle.”

In 2000, Coca-Cola settled a $192.5 million racial discrimination lawsuit brought by black employees who accused the company of race-based pay discrimination. Throughout the 18-month court battle, the company’s reputation suffered as the case drew international attention.

As a result, the company rewrote its employment policies and doubled the number of minorities in management positions. Today, African American staff make up 21 percent of the company, while Hispanics are at 18 percent.

Surge in programs

In the past year, the biggest tech firms have announced a slew of programs aimed at increasing diversity in their ranks.

Facebook expanded its summer internship program for minority computer science majors and started a new internship for minority business majors. Facebook also implemented a rule that requires recruiters to interview minority candidates.

Google, Facebook and Apple expanded the number of colleges for recruiting. Google said it found that 35 percent of black computer science graduates were coming from historically black colleges. So two years ago, it began to embed engineers at those schools to teach and mentor students into careers at the company.

Intel has been particularly aggressive. Earlier this year, the chipmaker pledged that its workforce would reflect the broader U.S. labor pool by 2020, and it created a $300 million venture fund designated for minority-led start-ups.

Christopher Hocutt is one of those who have benefited from the efforts. The Howard University student, who is black, struggled to get a summer internship in Silicon Valley, even with solid grades and after serving as president of the school’s Association for Computing Machinery.

During his junior year, Google began its guest teaching program and sent an engineer to Howard. The Google employee became a mentor to Hocutt, teaching the Richmond, Va., native what to expect in a summer internship interview and making important introductions to recruiters.

“I didn’t even know where to start, and I didn’t know how important it was to know how the process worked,” said Hocutt, who got the summer internship.

This summer, Google hired 30 college students from the historically black colleges for summer internships. Hocutt graduated from Howard in June and began as the first full-time hire from the search-engine giant’s program.