Tech has more of an exclusion problem than a culture problem

The tech industry’s diversity problems are exacerbated by its obsession with genius coders and brilliant founders, Carissa Romero, a partner at the diversity consulting startup Paradigm, said today at TechCrunch Disrupt NY. Romero, who took part in a panel of diversity advocates, said that the mentality that geniuses are born rather than created through experience and practice can be alienating for people who don’t fit the stereotype of the average tech worker: young, white, straight male, probably rocking a hoodie.

Diversity — or the lack of it — became a major focus in tech several years ago when companies like Google and Facebook followed Pinterest’s lead and released hard data about the gender and racial makeup of their workforces. The numbers confirmed the well-worn stereotype that tech companies are mostly staffed by white men, and kicked off conversations about how to level the playing field.

But now, those conversations have started to shift. With hard data out on the table, companies have started to diversify their new hires and are beginning to focus on building inclusive cultures so they can retain staff. Erica Baker, an engineer and diversity advocate at Slack, and Danielle Brown, head of diversity and inclusion at Intel, joined Romero in that conversation today at TechCrunch Disrupt NY.

Danielle Brown Intel Disrupt NY 2016“I don’t think tech has so much of a culture problem as an exclusion problem,” Baker said. When workers feel excluded, they may walk away from a company — or never apply for a job in the first place.

Advocates are working to foster cultures of inclusion within tech companies so they can raise their retention rates.

Baker, along with diversity advocates like Ellen Pao and Freada Kapor Klein, recently launched Project Include, a nonprofit organization focused on providing companies with tools and research to aid in their diversity and inclusion efforts. Project Include gives startups advice on how to build inclusive cultures, even if they can’t afford to hire a staffer to focus on diversity and inclusion or an outside firm like Paradigm. So far, Project Include has attracted more than 800 signups from members of the startup and venture capital communities.

“We’re having this boom of startups right now and have to make sure those companies are diverse and inclusive when they grow to be the Facebooks and Googles. Their cultures will set the tone for the next wave,” Baker said.

Data makes tech’s hiring problem fixable — an HR department can see that only two percent of its engineers are black and then focus its recruiting efforts to adjust that percentage. But making sure those employees want to stick around once they’re hired is a trickier problem.

Intel’s solution has been to motivate employees to support diversity and inclusion with cold, hard cash. Brown said her company has tied employee bonuses to its diversity and inclusion efforts — if Intel meets its diverse hiring and retention goals, everyone gets a bit more money. She said that tying bonuses to hiring goals is “a really powerful way to say you’re serious in your commitment.”

Although most of the industry’s conversations have focused primarily on racial and gender diversity, Brown said Intel will expand its diversity efforts and start releasing data about its LGBTQ, veteran and diversely abled employees.

Romero said that companies can also improve their retention rates by dropping the fascination with geniuses and focusing on building a culture of growth instead. She suggested that companies focus on the way they give feedback to employees, emphasizing effort, strategy and risk-taking over innate traits.

“People in tech look at themselves as being isolated from the rest of society,” Baker said, but that attitude allows institutional racism to make its way into company cultures. She called on companies to be more aware of institutional racism, sexism and bias and work actively against them.

“The key to bringing people into the conversation is making it okay for them to feel uncomfortable,” she added. Once we get past our discomfort, we can have the necessary conversations to improve tech culture.

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Correction: This story originally stated that Intel would release data on its LGBTQ, veteran and diversely abled employees later this year. Intel does not currently have a timeframe to publish these statistics.