“Would you mind having an off-the-record conversation about your questions? Is that Ok?” said the PR rep at a leading publicly listed technology company. “Err… sure,” I replied, more than a little puzzled.
The questions — which I put to Intel, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Google, and Salesforce — were pretty straightforward. I simply wanted to know why none of the major technology companies in the U.S. (with the exception of LinkedIn) include disability in their public diversity reporting, and if they had plans to do so.
“Great,” continued the PR. “Let me tell you what I’ve found out…”. What came next, of course, I can’t quote or attribute to anybody at the company. Outside of a parallel public relations universe, this conversation never actually took place.
I approached the next name on my list and a pattern began to emerge. “[Still] to be decided on what I’ll be able to share on the record, but I can definitely give you some information on background,” came a now-familiar reply.
Others wanted to know who else I had asked, perhaps for fear of saying too much or making an unnecessary first move. “When is your deadline?” was also a stock response, before, in a number of instances, the trail went dead.
It seems that many leading U.S. technology companies don’t want to talk about disability and employee diversity — at least not publicly.
Why does this matter?
According to data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 only 17.5 percent of persons with a disability (PWDs) were employed and this compares to 65 percent for those without a disability.
The Bureau also says that although the official unemployment rate for PWDs (counted as persons who do not have a job, are available for work, and are actively looking for a job) fell to 10.7 percent in 2015, it was still twice that of those without a disability, which stood at 5.1 percent.
In 2015 only 17.5 percent of persons with a disability were employed and this compares to 65.0 percent for those without a disability.
Now, as someone with quite a severe disability, I would be the first to acknowledge that there are myriad reasons why a PWD could find it difficult to secure employment or to work at all, and that employers aren’t always to blame. Agism could also be a factor, since disability disproportionately affects older people. And so could educational attainment; by some measurements, PWDs are less likely to be degree educated than those without.
However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is very clear: across all age groups and all levels of education, PWDs were much less likely to be employed than were their counterparts with no disability.
That said, there are also many practical things employers can do to help PWDs overcome challenges at work, and in turn benefit from a workforce truly made up of all the talents.
Why pick on the tech industry?
At its best, technology acts as an enabler for PWDs, helping to level the playing field, and therefore can be a genuine force for social mobility. However, since disability isn’t included in most technology companies’ public diversity reporting, what we don’t know is how well the technology industry itself is doing with regards to the number of PWDs it employs and how this compares company to company.
Without the data to back it up we can’t say for sure if a company is becoming more diverse, regardless of what efforts they say they are taking or how much PR they generate.
The reason why an increasing number of technology companies publish diversity reports regards gender, race and ethnicity— and why it’s important that they do so — is it sends a signal to other prospective employees that a workplace is inclusive and that diversity matters.
Crucially, it also enables publications like this one to hold those companies to account. Without the data to back it up we can’t say for sure if a company is becoming more diverse, regardless of what efforts they say they are taking or how much PR they generate.
Here are the specific questions I put to Intel, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Google and Salesforce:
- Do you include PWDs or equivalent in your public diversity reporting?
- If no, why not?
- And, if no, do you have any plans to do so?
- If you do in actual fact collect this data (but choose not to publish it) are you able to share what percentage of your workforce identifies as a PWD?
- What is the company doing to encourage and support more PWDs getting into the tech industry?
The first to reply and most open was Slack. “Early thought is that Slack will include that information in our diversity reporting, as we are legally able to capture it, and employees are willing to share it,” said a spokesperson.
The point here is that, if I understand correctly, you can’t legally force employees to declare if they have a disability to prevent against discrimination. Any reporting has to be non-mandatory and self-identified.
The company was also willing to talk about efforts being made within the organisation and Slack’s inclusive culture. However, since it doesn’t currently track “disability status” it couldn’t provide data on how many PWDs the company employs.
While we don’t track disability status today, we have channels in Slack where employees can opt in to discuss and self-identify…
We keep an open dialogue with our PWD employees to get their input on how and where we invest in accessibility within the office (interpreters for meetings, considering new accessibility technologies, for example), and we’ve also hired some terrific people who are helping us create a product that is accessible for everyone.
Apple doesn’t currently include PWD employment data in its public diversity reporting. At first the company pointed me to its accessibility efforts with regards to its own products , something it also highlighted in a video shown at the recent new MacBook Pro launch.
I understand that Apple believes making its products accessible is the best way to signal that the company welcomes employees with disabilities. However, I’m unconvinced you can spin the lack of PWD diversity reporting (and therefore accountability) into a discussion about product design.
After I told Apple that all of the other major technology companies approached were going on record (which turned out not to be true), the company offered the following statement:
Since our earliest days, Apple has encouraged people with disabilities to pursue careers in tech and help inform features on all of our products. We’ll continue to do that because we believe everyone should be able to use technology to do what they love. We foster a diverse culture that’s inclusive of people with disabilities because we understand that inclusion inspires innovation.
Twitter does not include PWDs in its reporting but declined to go on record. However, I understand the company follows the EEO-1 report guidelines (required by the U.S. government), which doesn’t include PWDs.
It also has processes for applicants, future employees and current employees to request accommodations related to their disabilities, and Twitter engages to reasonably accommodate these requests.
Like Apple, the company pointed me to its accessibility efforts from a product perspective, and I understand that Twitter sees inclusion as a leading principle of the company.
Intel were surprisingly forthcoming. A spokesperson for the company told me it does not currently include data on employees with disabilities in its annual and mid-year diversity and inclusion reports, but “as the reports evolve” this could change.
They were also keen to highlight the diversity work Intel is currently doing, some of which directly relates to working with PWDs:
Right now, our $300 million Diversity & Inclusion in Technology Initiative and 2020 goal is focused around increasing representation of women and underrepresented minorities in our U.S. workforce. However, we have a broad view of diversity and inclusion which extends to employees with disabilities as well as veterans, who may not be accounted for in our diversity and inclusion reports but are not discounted internally. Through a combination of employee resource groups such as the Intel Diverse Abilities Network and accommodations, we are focused on creating a work environment where they can thrive and succeed. The Intel Diverse Abilities Network provides a network of support and sponsors education efforts for employees who have disabilities or have loved ones impacted by disability.
Since the statement was provided, Intel announced it has expanded its diversity fund to include support for PWDs. That’s progress.
Facebook, Salesforce, and Google
All three companies responded on the 18th of October to my original request, with Facebook and Salesforce asking when my deadline was. Despite following up again 7 days later, I’ve still yet to hear back from either company. Meanwhile, the correct spokesperson for Google still could not be reached at the time of publication.
One of the off-the-record arguments put forward to not include PWDs in diversity reporting is that the resulting data would be inaccurate. Since not all employees with a disability would feel comfortable declaring that they have one, and not every disability is visible, the process would be prone to under-reporting.
However, it is hard to see how technology companies can have it both ways: talking up an inclusive and supportive workplace culture whilst at the same time claiming that PWDs would be too afraid to identify as such.
Either way, if the technology industry is serious about employee diversity with regards to PWDs, then it needs to find a way to be accountable. You can’t solve the PWD diversity reporting problem until you admit that you have one. The first step is to begin talking about it.