Diversity in tech work must begin before HR's inbox

By Catherine Rampell, Columbian syndicated columnist

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Tech companies are finally spilling some of their most sought-after secrets. No, not related to their R&D. I'm referring instead to other tightly guarded information they once declared "trade secrets": data about the number of women and minorities on their payrolls.

After years of trying to deflect attention from the issue, Google blogged in May about the diversity, or lack thereof, of its staff, acknowledging that just 17 percent of its tech employees are female and 5 percent are black or Hispanic. Since then, other peer-pressured tech Goliaths rolled out similar metrics, including LinkedIn, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Apple, Pinterest and, just last week, Pandora and Indiegogo. Most have 'fessed up to lousy records and committed to making things better.

The public response has been a bit harsher than these firms probably hoped.

"Apple … claims to 'Think Different,' but their hiring reflects more of the same," scolded ValleyWag, a tech news site. Jesse Jackson demanded that the Obama administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigate whether the firms are denying opportunities to minorities.

Sure, there are probably things these successful companies could do to become friendlier to women and minorities — and to diminish the "brogrammer" culture. Some Silicon Valley firms, for example, glorify long, late hours, which may not be as accommodating to women (who are more likely to be primary caregivers).

"The people who are most recognized and rewarded are often the guys who pull the all-nighter to fix the bug right before it's supposed to ship or go live," Ann Mei Chang, who was the senior engineering director at Google for eight years, told me last year. "Women are more likely to have tested stuff and worked hard all along the way to make sure there wouldn't be problems at the very end, and that kind of work style is not always as rewarded."

Long-term challenges

Even if all that's true, I am still sympathetic to these companies. The challenges leading to underrepresentation of women and certain minorities in tech and other STEM fields start long before the recruiting process.

It begins when kids are young and have access to scant engineering and computer science role models, especially those who are female, black or Hispanic. By the time students enroll in college, few intend to major in engineering or computer science, with numbers especially low for women and ethnic minorities other than Asians.

The few women and minorities who express interest in these fields have high attrition rates. One result is that only about 18.2 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science, and 19.2 percent in engineering, were awarded to women in 2012. Most troubling, in raw numbers, the total number of women receiving bachelor's degrees in computer science fell in the last decade, from 13,690 in 2002 to 8,730 in 2012.

Exactly why so many aspiring computer scientists and engineers, particularly females, "attrit" is unclear. Harsher grading in these departments, relative to the easy-A humanities, seems to be a factor. The lack of role models among postsecondary instructors might also discourage women and minorities from sticking with the field, which creates a Catch-22.

Some schools have found innovative ways to attract and retain women and minorities to these fields. Harvey Mudd College, for example, sends female students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing each year. It also recently split its mandatory intro computer science course into parallel tracks, to avoid having the really experienced students intimidate the novices. The share of female computer science majors at the school has risen from 10 percent in 2006 to nearly half last year.

A lot can be done to encourage women and minorities to enter these lucrative occupations and firms. Companies certainly have a role to play, but interventions need to start long before the résumé-screening process begins.