We know diversity in tech is a problem, but what’s the solution?

Women and minorities are fighting for a place in fast-growth science and engineering-driven industries, and the struggle is stoking a heated dialogue, especially at its epicenters in Silicon Valley and the emerging New York City tech hub.

VentureBeat recently debunked the myths about women at the helm of technology companies and conducted a roundtable about the issue.

A new generation of chief executives of giant technology companies illustrates the point amply: Virginia Rometty at IBM, Meg Whitman at HP, Carol Bartz at Yahoo, Heather Bresch at Mylan and Ursula Burns at Xerox.  Their successes alone should inspire the rising generation to believe the glass ceiling has been broken.

Yet at the same time, research from the Level Playing Field Institute suggests the persistence of hostile work environments in high tech companies for women and people of color.

Two weeks ago, allegations arose about the suppression of damaging corporate diversity stats by Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. And this past Sunday night a CNN Special Report focused on the efforts of young black entrepreneurs to crack the venture code and the alleged color barriers of Silicon Valley, revealing some very deep chasms in perception, if not reality.


Our Sputnik Moment

In 1957, Russia shocked America by launching Sputnik, crushing America’s assumption of superiority and unleashing a national reinvestment in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education from grade school through universities. The U.S. quickly created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA; later DARPA), which ultimately gave us our space program, led to advances in supercomputing and birthed the Internet.

America finds itself again chasing progress made by other nations, especially those in Asia, while fretting that we’ve lost our global equity and edge. The Department of Education and the National Academies of Science and Engineering declare that the U.S. needs hundreds of thousands of university-trained STEM graduates to enter the workforce in the next decade alone just to keep pace with new global challenges.

This is our second Sputnik moment. At a time when women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs and blacks and Hispanics also fare poorly in these fields, we better get this argument about diversity of talent right or else it’s going to be a very expensive moment, indeed.


It’s ideology that’s expensive

At the risk of oversimplifying this complex debate, we can see two ideological camps.

One holds that Silicon Valley is a purely race- and gender-blind Darwinian market for talent, where the best and brightest people are rewarded. Anything that tampers with this free-market meritocracy, such as a kind of venture capital or high-tech corporate affirmative action, is expensive and inefficient.

The other believes that biases in the culture and active discrimination prevent qualified women and minorities from entering the field and rising — the only way to explain the terribly low numbers from those groups among professionals in STEM generally and in Silicon Valley in particular.

Let me suggest a third way, based on my own ideology: The most expensive thing of all is ideology, and the cure for ideology is personal relationships.

This third way comes with no broad assumptions or prejudices, it cuts through political attachments and it bears costs only in personal time and attention. It unleashes the most powerful and subversive force of all, a one-on-one relationship with another human being across boundaries of age, gender, race and culture. And developing relationships is almost completely free.


All hands on deck

At the very moment I’m writing this, there are 327 science and engineering students from more than 78 universities who have created a profile on my company’s mentorship network and are waiting for us to match them with mentors in industry. That’s on top of the 1,491 already matched with mentors right now.

A large majority of these applicants are women or Hispanic or African-American or some combination. Our goal was to help find the half a million additional engineers and scientists that America will need in the next decade, and we figured that building personal relationships would increase our country’s odds.

Across major tech, science and engineering firms, the demand for women and minorities has been huge — just as large as the desire of underrepresented groups to succeed in changing the world through STEM careers.

At last count, I saw hundreds of talented future engineers and scientists waiting for a hand to reach out and guide them across the bridge to their careers. I see thousands more standing in line behind them.

If you’re a working engineer or scientist, I personally call you to an “all hands on deck” to solve our mutual STEM talent crisis. See for yourself where merit or talent may lie. Building a personal relationship involving deep communication and even mentorship across a wide, out-of-your-comfort-zone group of individuals is the first step in breaking down the lack of diversity in technology and other STEM fields.

No commitment is necessary. You don’t have to promise someone a job. All you need to do is share your experience and wisdom with someone who wants to walk the path you’re already traveling.

Together, we need to overcome movements that reject science and those that divide our collective will in the face of collective adversity. We need to re-orient our education system to embrace the rigors of science and math and encourage students to seek the beauty that lies within its challenges.

But while pursuing long-arc strategies, business largely lives and dies on short-term action, where the goal is never to leave value on the table. For the U.S. right now, the most costly move is to leave talent on the table.

David Porush is president and CEO of MentorNet, a non-profit devoted to matching engineering and science students with mentors in the professions, with a special focus on leveling the playing field for underrepresented groups. Porush came to MentorNet after co-founding and serving as Chairman of SpongeFish, a social network for global knowledge exchange.

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