Three ways to begin fixing Silicon Valley's 'pipeline' problem

Originally published on USA TODAY on July 16, 2015.

There's a lot of talk about the "pipeline" as the root cause for technology's lack of diversity—the idea that women and minorities aren't seeking out relevant education, therefore they cannot be hired for technical or executive jobs.

This ignores the fact that the lack of diversity in non-technical roles like administration and sales mirrors a shortfall in technical positions in Silicon Valley. Further evidence shows that current diverse candidates graduating with technical degrees are still not seeing the wealth of opportunities that the technology industry promises.

As Elizabeth Weise and Jessica Guynn of USA TODAY pointed out last fall:

On average, just 2% of technology workers at seven Silicon Valley companies that have released staffing numbers are black; 3% are Hispanic.
But last year, 4.5% of all new recipients of bachelor's degrees in computer science or computer engineering from prestigious research universities were African American, and 6.5% were Hispanic, according to data from the Computing Research Association.

I might work with computers for a living, but I'm pretty sure a pipeline only works when it's used at both ends.

Let's make something clear—when we talk about roadblocks to diversity today, rarely are we pointing to overt bias and discrimination. The issues plaguing Silicon Valley are often subtle practices and biases that snowball into a major imbalance. But I truly believe it's not hard to commit to diversity.

Any expenses to implement better practices will pale in comparison to the long-term financial gain—that is, if simply committing to diversity because it's the right thing to do isn't enough.

If you're a CEO, hiring manager, or decision maker at your company and you'd like to do your part, here are three ways to get serious about diversity.

END EMPLOYEE REFERRAL PROGRAMS

By doing this, you're instantly considering a more diverse pool of applicants.

This is especially important if you offer a bonus to employees for referrals. Take those funds and cover relocation expenses for new hires. If you already reimburse moving costs, now you're saving money!

Current employees who enjoy the bonus might not like this change. The good news is that diverse teams perform better, so you can give those well-performing teams a year-end bonus instead.

You could also find better ways to improve employee life by diverting that money into programs for a quality family leave policy and flexible paid time off.

START A RESIDENCY PROGRAM

Women and minority candidates from schools already tapped into the Silicon Valley pipeline are going without jobs, as the stats above show. This could be for a number of reasons—lacking a network for referrals, inability to afford internships or temporary positions, or unconscious bias. Perhaps the worst example of such bias is that people with stereotypically black names were 50% less likely to be called back for an interview.

Whatever the reason, there's a tested solution to help increase your employee headcount with quality workers: Take a cue from the medical field and start a residency program.

This is a low-risk move that allows companies to hire people that might otherwise be passed over for a perceived (or real) lack of experience. Now you have no excuses.

Train residents for a six to 12-month period while they work on small projects within the company. After completing the residency program, transition these employees to full-time roles.

These programs should be run largely by women and minorities in effort to provide all new residents with multiple examples of traditionally underrepresented people in leadership positions.

If you really care about hiring people from all walks of life, dedicate a large portion of these resident positions to candidates from outside Silicon Valley.

LISTEN TO US

There's no shortage of people doing their best to speak up. Yet, what I see time and time again is a dismissal of these people's experiences or qualifications, including my own.

"You must have been under qualified," or "I'm a white guy and I've experienced that too, so it's not a problem," or "Get over yourself," are common retorts that reinforce the status quo of Silicon Valley's  meritocracy myth.

There's a constant effort to silence the voices of people who can see blindspots where others cannot. It's easy to ignore these situations when it doesn't affect you personally, but that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

Addressing Silicon Valley's lack of diversity truly starts by listening to the stories we are trying to tell you. If you ignore us, if you think you know better than us about how to develop an inclusive environment, if you think you can uncover the "real" reason why we aren't getting hired at the rates we deserve:

You are wrong.

Sharing our experiences does not invalidate your own. So just listen.

Listening leads to empathy. Empathy leads to building a better culture.

Doesn't that sound great?

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It’s not enough to keep saying Silicon Valley has a diversity problem—we have to get specific