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Google, Silicon Valley must do more to hire female engineers

(Boris Roessler/EPA)

The technology industry has been fighting hard not to reveal race and gender diversity data — especially for its engineering teams — because it has a lot to be embarrassed about.  Data collected on Github showed that the percentage of female engineers at Qualcomm’s development center in Austin was 5.5 percent. At Dropbox it’s 6.3 percent, at Yelp 8.3 percent, at Airbnb 13.2 percent and 14.4 percent at Pinterest.

Google just revealed that 17 percent of its technology staff is female.  That is impressive compared with the rest of Silicon Valley, but not once you put it in the context of the available pool of female computer scientists.

In 1987, some 37 percent of the graduating computer-science class was female.  But, because of the unfair hurdles they face, women are getting discouraged from studying computer science, and the percentage had dropped to 18 percent by 2012.  Nonetheless, about a quarter of the pool of highly-experienced software developers is female.  A company such as Google — which has its choice of new graduates as well as of experienced engineers—should therefore have far greater diversity.

To Google’s credit, it has broken ranks with the technology industry by disclosing its gender-diversity numbers.  It is taking positive steps to correct its imbalance.  As well, its Google for Entrepreneurs group has been very supportive of projects that help women—including a crowd-created book that I am finalizing about women in innovation.

Google can surely be doing much more, though, and can even learn from start-ups such as one that I am advising.

When I joined the board of  Humin, in May 2013, its founder Ankur Jain expressed deep frustration about the lack of diversity on his engineering team.  “I agree we need to have a team that understands the product needs of more than just the young male user, but we just can’t find them,” he said.  Competition for talent is indeed fierce in Silicon Valley, and it is difficult for start-ups to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook—which sometimes offer million-dollar signup packages.

I advised the Humin team to network with women’s groups and look harder.  And that is what it did. Percy Rajani, Humin’s vice president of product and engineering, says it revamped its interview process to look for top talent in unconventional places rather than just looking for former employees of other well-known tech companies.  He felt that the company could teach its recruits programming languages and processes, and that intelligence, motivation, and personality were the key traits to recruit.

Humin did succeed in assembling an exceptional and diverse engineering team.  By broadening its search process, it found a depth and breadth of female talent, especially amongst developers whose original background was in engineering fields other than computer science.  Today, one third of Humin’s 18-person engineering team are women.  Two of those hold PhDs.

A common problem in Silicon Valley is that the interviewers for technology jobs are usually young men, and that the job specifications are geared towards finding young nerds.  The hiring process is like recruitment into a fraternity.  Until Dropbox recently made wholesale changes to its hiring practices, the conference rooms where interviews were held were named “The Break-up Room” and “Bromance Chamber,” and applicants were sometimes asked what they would do in the event of a “zombie apocalypse” or what they were “geeky about.”  Needless to say, it is such antics that turn female developers away and serve to discourage girls from studying computer science.

That is why technology companies need to rethink the way they recruit.  They need to look at how jobs are defined so that they don’t exclude women, who have a tendency, unlike males, to pass up opportunities for which they don’t have the exact skills.  They need to look beyond the usual recruitment grounds by interviewing from universities where there are high proportions of women and minorities, as well as at conferences that women engineers attend, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and Women 2.0.  They need to insist that, for every job opening, at least one woman and minority member be interviewed, and that the interviewing committee be diverse.  And they need to make sure that the hiring is for competency rather than for credentials.

Why is diversity important for tech companies?  Consider that more women than men use social-networking apps on mobile phones.  Products designed and developed by males don’t usually incorporate the intricacies of gender and race.  Humin’s senior product manager, Arielle Zuckerberg, said that the team had to redesign the product’s search function, for example, because “women can remember people in different contextual ways than men, and so might search for their friends using different queries.”  The original version was also designed to activate certain features by tapping on the phone while it was in a pocket.  Arielle pointed out to the development team that women don’t keep phones in their pants but hold them in their purses.

The technology industry is unnecessarily holding itself back by hiding its diversity data and pretending there isn’t a problem.  If it comes clean, as Google just has, it can start having informed discussions about its problems and their solutions.

 Related: Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance in one chart

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.



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