In the face of mounting pressure, Google has released some data on the diversity of its workforce, after years of claiming the information was a trade secret. The data came with the caveat from the company that "we're not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.”
Google is not alone in its lack of diversity — the company’s mostly white and mostly male staff, especially among the ranks of engineers and executives, is in line with national trends in the U.S. tech sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So how does that lack of diversity affect the tech industry? Here’s one story to consider.
Not long after Arielle Zuckerberg was hired last year as senior product manager for Humin, a San Francisco start up, she was in a meeting talking about the design of the company’s mobile app. At the time, Zuckerberg was one of only three female engineers, and the only woman on the executive team.
Zuckerberg says in the meeting, the guys on the team were excited about a new feature in the works that let a user add a contact to a phone, just by knocking on the phone while it was in his or her pocket.
Well, make that—his pocket.
“I brought to the attention of the execs that women don't carry their phones in their pocket—they carry them in their purse,” Zuckerberg recalls.
It's the kind of obvious but potentially fatal design flaw that could make an app not so exciting to half a company’s potential customers. A segment also known as: women.
For Zuckerberg, this was a painfully simple insight. “But to the execs,” she says, “it was like—‘Oh, wow, I never thought of that.’”
Innovation "blind spots" are what Catherine Bracy calls these moments. She recruits engineers for tech non-profit Code for America, based in Silicon Valley—a place, Bracy says, with little diversity and many blind spots.
“You assume that you have all the knowledge you need to solve all these problems, and you don't realize that your world is so small,” Bracy says. “Innovation happens when you have different types of people in a room together having arguments but coming out with better solutions and better ideas.”
There's lots of research showing that diversity helps a company innovate and profit, says Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and fellow at Stanford Law School. He points out that while engineers and executives at google and other tech companies are mostly white and male, their customers are not.
That imbalance raises an important question for Wadhwa: “If technology developers don't understand anything about their audience,” he wonders, “how will they develop better technologies?”