Recently I attended the wedding celebration of my friend, who is a Bay Area tech entrepreneur. It was a well-attended event, bustling with some of the who’s who in Silicon Valley. I was introduced to the founder of a successful startup and learned about his next startup, which is working to address the national shortage in tech talent. The startup is a training and placement program that gets people trained with software skills for a career in tech in just six months. It seems to be successful and is getting a lot of visibility from business and government leaders. These days the lack of women and minorities in tech, especially in Silicon Valley, is getting a lot of attention. So I naturally asked if the program was recruiting minorities and women.
And the answer was “No.” As my face registered surprise, he went on to add “because companies don’t want them.”
At this point my face flushed red and I started to feel hot and sick to my stomach. But in the way that I normally am, I calmly responded “that seems odd because my employer is actively recruiting women and minorities”.
The conversation became even more interesting when he responded that “companies that are rich can afford to pad their numbers with low performing employees.” Okay, maybe he didn’t say low performing, maybe he said filler, inferior, or sub-par. “Smaller less rich companies can’t afford to pad their numbers.” What I heard is that he, along with others, believes that women and minorities do not make good employees.
This was really offensive to me. My head is still spinning. My twenty five years as a woman at a large tech company relegated me to an inferior status. I felt personally marginalized, and still do, when I think about this conversation.
And then he went on to use an analogy, asking me this question “if you were going to have heart surgery, and you were given a choice between a surgeon who is a minority, and may have benefited from affirmative action, or a surgeon who is a white male, whom would you choose?” I responded that I would probably choose the minority because that person likely worked much harder to achieve their position. He informed me that “not many people would agree, and that most people would choose the white male.” Okay, he’s right.
I responded by describing a recent study that exposed implicit bias in the hiring process. The study, published in Harvard Business Review, describes how having more than one woman in the interview pool makes a bigger difference than probability would suggest. When an employer interviews a panel of four candidates, and one of them is a woman, she has zero chance of being hired. However, if the panel of four candidates includes two women, then the chance of a woman being hired goes up to 50%. The study exposed the implicit bias that minorities face, and also showed a potential fix of having multiple women in the interview pool.
The article also cites other studies that expose implicit bias. “When employers use a blind audition to hire their programmers and engineers, women tend to be hired at a higher rate than men. The same is true in blind auditions for professional orchestras.”
The next day I sent him a link to the studies and said I’d put him in touch with the recruiting department where I work to help find jobs for his program’s graduates, in particular minority and women. I still feel personally marginalized from the experience, even after being a woman engineer in tech for 25 years. My achievements are overshadowed by a cloud- I’m just padding, for my employer to meet diversity numbers. It is a feeling that I still can’t shake off several days later. But I am grateful for the experience of knowing what this Bay Area entrepreneur thinks, without a fake sugar coating. His feelings are the same as the feelings of many others, he isn’t an anomaly. It’s good to know where I stand, even if it hurts.