In October 2013, a young software engineer at Pinterest, Tracy Chou, shined a blazing spotlight at the underrepresentation of women in Silicon Valley’s engineering workforce. She started her effort by writing a blog post on Medium.com, in which she bemoaned the lack of real data, and began collecting it—both personally, by asking engineers to get data from their companies and report it to her—and by pushing major companies to reveal their workforce stats. Since then, Intel committed US $300 million to diversity efforts, and tech firms have started reporting their diversity numbers as a matter of course. It’s hard to believe this would have happened without Chou’s lighting the initial match that let people peak around at an issue that had long been tucked in the shadow.
This month, another Pinterest engineer, Makinde Adeagbo, lit another fire. He announced the formation of a nonprofit organization, dev/color, “to maximize the success of Black software engineers.” What that means, Adeagbo wrote in Medium, is pushing on several fronts, including signing up mentors and organizing events, to not only get more Black engineers hired, but to enable them to advance up corporate ladders. The diversity data today at top Silicon Valley companies, he wrote, “is alarming and unacceptable. There’s a serious lack of Black representation at every company, and the disparity is even greater within engineering teams and leadership roles, barely breaking one percent…. In Silicon Valley, you can go weeks without seeing another black engineer.”
This isn’t the only effort to increase the number of black engineers in the workforce, but many of the others focus more on the pipeline, that is, getting black students committed to science and engineering careers, and less on how to make sure those careers are successful. There’s clearly a need for that—a recent survey by the Computing Research Association showed that black students take home 4.1 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science, information technology, and computer engineering, but fill an average of 2 percent of engineering slots at the biggest tech firms. Indeed, at some major Silicon Valley companies, like Google and Yahoo, the tech workforce is only 1 percent black.
Why did both these efforts start at Pinterest? I’m not sure the company really knows, but it’s getting behind them. It just announced diversity goals for 2016 that include making sure 30 percent of new hires are women and 8 percent come from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds. It will also require that at least one woman and one person from an underrepresented background is interviewed for each open leadership position. And it announced that it will back Adeagbo’s dev/color financially, and allow him to spend 50 percent of his work time on the nonprofit.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.