The Real Issue with Diversity in Tech – It’s a Culture Problem

A boss lady giving her tech employees some instructions

When it comes to technology, the term innovation often comes to mind. Especially in recent decades, Silicon Valley has introduced major technology developments that continue to change the world. One might therefore suspect that tech giants welcome diversity and inclusion since both have been linked to greater creativity. But annual diversity reports continue to highlight the exact opposite. The bottom line is that diversity in tech is significantly lacking, especially when it comes to women and racial minorities. And instead of boasting about an inclusive company culture, the majority can only claim one of bias and discrimination.

The lack of diversity in tech is not new. In fact, major technology companies have been publishing diversity figures since 2014. Companies like Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft consistently have very poor grades in this regard. Most, if not all, have also attempted to change to a more inclusive company culture. But repeatedly efforts fail year after year, and a variety of obstacles are cited. But in actuality, there’s only one main issue preventing needed change for these companies…the failure to change underlying workplace behaviors.

“Every year they put out the same diversity report, check the box, then send out the same report the next year. We’re at a crucial crossroads — I don’t think what tech companies have done to date is anywhere near enough.” – Freada Kapor Klein, PhD, Founding Team Member at Project Include and Founder of Level Playing Field Institute

Diversity in Tech by the Numbers

Roughly six years ago, most major tech firms embraced diversity and inclusion initiatives designed to create a better company culture. At the time, the vast majority of employees working in technology were male in gender and either Asian or White race. Goals were set by Facebook, Apple, Amazon and others, and metrics were monitored. Likewise, many have striven to change hiring procedures as well as advancement criteria. But despite these efforts, the statistics have changed little. Diversity in tech remains pitifully low, and incentives for change markedly absent.

(For additional insight, check out this article: “The Empowering Guide for Women in Tech in 2023“.)

Consider some of the following figures. In 2014, the number of African Americans working for Facebook was 3 percent. Six years later, that figure remains below 4 percent. While some of the other tech companies are slightly better, they too still report single digit percentages of African Americans. Improvements in a more inclusive company culture for women are not much better either. In 2014, Facebook noted that 15 percent of its workforce were female. In 2019, this increased to 23 percent. But that doesn’t mean these women are being moved into leadership positions. In fact, there remains little diversity in tech among upper-level managers and executives. Women as well as many racial minorities significantly underrepresented.

“Credentialing is a form of gatekeeping and protecting who has access to power and who doesn’t. There’s this term that I think was coined a few years ago about how Silicon Valley tech companies are not meritocracies, but ‘mirrortocracies,’ so you’re hiring people who have similar credentials to you, had the same sort of schooling, etcetera.” – Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin, Lead Researcher at the AI Now Institute

The STEM Pipeline Myth

For many years, in fact decades, many have claimed the lack of diversity in tech is because of a lack of qualified talent. In other words, the skewed numbers at major tech firms represent limited numbers of women and minorities graduating college. These claims have resulted in tremendous investments in STEM programs for female and minority students. Likewise, a variety of organizations have formed to support these endeavors. The truth of the matter is the number of female and minority college graduates are comparable to White male ones. Diversity in tech graduates is quite healthy today, but inclusive company cultures are not.

Excuses regarding an insufficient pipeline of technology talent among women and minorities are supported by data. Top universities today graduate African American and Hispanic science and computing engineers at twice the rate they’re being hired. At those like Stanford and Berkeley, half of those in introductory computer science classes are female. Thus, the hiring pool has ample diversity in tech talent, but they’re not being hired for other reasons. Unfortunately, the reason involves longstanding biases that consistent prevent an inclusive company culture from evolving.

“Moving the needle by 10% is a lot, that means a lot of employees have to be hired or a lot have to leave, and it still doesn’t change the culture. Companies have a much harder task and it requires an absolute fundamental commitment to change.” – Dr. Freada Kapor Klein

Structural and Non-Structural Barriers to Change

Companies like Facebook, Alphabet and others are now tracking metrics, monitoring diversity in tech progress. But measurements without accountability do very little. If targets for a more inclusive company culture are not met, there seems to be no repercussions. As a result, flowery language and diversity initiatives sound wonderful but mean very little. Hiring algorithms and promotion determinations continue to exhibit the same biases and discrimination that perpetuate the status quo. (Read more about how artificial intelligence and hiring algorithms are taking over recruiting in this Bold Business story.) Small success may occur, but the larger change needed never gains traction.

A woman in a hijab giving her employee instructions
A more inclusive company culture has its advantages – not the least of which is broadening the talent and leadership pool.

If tech companies truly want to realize a more inclusive company culture, senior leadership has to commit to needed change. Unconscious bias training needs to be implemented company-wide to elucidate hidden discrimination. Outside consultants may be required in these situations when insights are poor. And well-defined career advancements need to be in place that support diversity in tech. These efforts along with incentives and accountability measures are absolute requirements for a more inclusive company culture.

Radical Change Can Lead to Radical Success

Often, those in positions of power fear greater diversity in tech because are less comfortable with the unfamiliar. But dynamic organizations willing to invest in a more inclusive company culture will be those with the greatest future success. (Read more about the business success diversity, equity and inclusion can bring in this Bold Business story.) Diversity consistently leads to innovative thoughts and creative ideas. And inclusion invites participation and collaboration where companies get the absolute best out of their talent. Especially in highly competitive technology sectors, diversity and inclusion provide opportunities for competitive advantage. For bold companies that recognize this and pursue radical shifts in hiring and advancement, success will follow. It’s well past the time that such initiatives among today’s tech giants take place.


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