Google’s Tepid Plan To Boost Diversity At Tech Conferences

Less than a month after admitting it hires too many white dudes, Google is committing to increasing the number of women and minorities in tech to better reflect society at large.

This week Google promised $50 million to “Made With Code,” an initiative designed to get more women into coding. It will also be sending 100 women to Google I/O this week who scored well in its “CodeJam to I/O for Women” online competition, and it has established a scholarship for women and minorities covering the cost of attendance and travel for events in North America. Through the efforts, the company hopes to take on the short- and long-term diversity issues at Google and in the tech industry in general.

The tech industry is often criticized for not being open enough for those outside of the white male techie demographic. Women and minorities often feel out of place at big events where dude-bro culture runs rampant.

When I spoke to Google CodeJam Project Manager Emily Miller, she emphasized the importance of getting more women who are already interested in tech to become more involved in the greater community.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” she explained in a phone interview. The tech industry’s views and culture won’t change until more women are involved, but many women won’t feel comfortable until the culture changes. So Google is taking the initiative, paying the price of a ticket and $500 worth of travel expenses to bring 100 of the top scorers to I/O from the more than 500 who entered its competition. Furthermore, the company coordinated with the Anita Borg Institute, Girl Develop-It, and more to “cast a wider net and attract under-represented groups.”

Google is also launching a scholarship program in North America to cover the costs of attendance and $500 in travel expenses for select tech conferences for women and minorities, which includes (but isn’t limited to) African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, persons with disabilities, women and veterans. Google also confirmed that those in the queer and transgender communities are also welcome to apply.

Google is leveraging the existing networks established by groups like the National Society Of Black Engineers to get the word out about its new scholarship program, sending applicants to events focused on a range of topics, from “professional development” to “neural information processing systems.”

While the scholarship’s site is under the Google for Education banner, Google Diversity Lead Matt Howard tells me that the program is actually technically being run by Google Operations, putting it under the same umbrella as human resources at the search giant. That’s telling: the company is hoping that by helping the tech industry become more diverse, Google’s workforce will too, and vice-versa.

Still, for a company with a ~$380 billion market cap, these early efforts seems fairly weak. Sure, sending 100 women to a conference is a step in the right direction, but that’s less than 2 percent of the 6,000 people who are expected to attend Google I/O this week. Google has told TechCrunch that it expects 20 percent of those in attendance to be women this year, so another 100 is kind of only nudging the needle.

Similarly, Google’s scholarship program is a welcome opportunity, but the company is setting the bar pretty low for its first batch of conferences. Howard told me over the phone that the company hopes to send “at least one person” to each of the conferences it is partnering with in the next few months.

Still, these are early efforts to fix short-term issues. As you’d expect from a software company, Google’s approach is iterative. It’s going to try out these smaller initiatives, see what works, then implement at an even larger scale.

Google’s $50 million commitment to “Made With Code” is a lot harder to criticize. The numbers show that the percentage of women getting technical degrees in computer science has fallen over time, so major efforts to get girls and young women interested in technology could have a far more significant impact in the long-term.