In Trump Era, Where Are Diversity Efforts in Silicon Valley Headed?

Tech industry leaders meet with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower.  Like the industry at large, the group is mostly white and male.

Tech industry leaders meet with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Like the industry at large, the group is mostly white and male. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

With high-profile companies from Facebook to Airbnb making pronouncements in support of diversity, you’d think that the very people hired to address the problems inside tech companies would feel comfortable talking about the challenges of their job. Not necessarily.

“I don’t feel comfortable speaking freely,” said “Elizabeth” with a nervous laugh.

Elizabeth is African-American and works at a tech company in Silicon Valley. We’re not using her real name because she’s concerned her job could be in jeopardy if she’s identified.

“One of the things I consistently feel is that I’m not taken seriously because of my race,” Elizabeth said.

What she means is that whenever she brings up issues about diversity or raises concerns that people might be treated unfairly, the response she senses from colleagues and management is: Of course she’s gonna bring that up, she’s African-American. Then, the eye roll.

Elizabeth’s company makes software for industries ranging from retail to banking. As a diversity and inclusion specialist, she pushes to make sure product focus groups are diverse.

“Even that gets an eye roll,” she said. “Just asking for an audience that is representative of the population as opposed to who we can get now, who are the easiest people to access.”

Tech companies have acknowledged the need to diversify their workforce, but despite these high-profile commitments, the road has been slow going. Diversity numbers at many tech companies have barely budged. And people of color say while the industry talks a lot about diversity, in general it’s not a top priority and initiatives to bring about change are met with resistance.

Elizabeth says one important ally has been President Obama. For one thing, she says, Obama was beloved by many in Silicon Valley and so had influence. Another reason?

“These companies do government work, and so to be on the good side of the administration there was pressure to really commit to diversity and inclusion,” Elizabeth said.

Obama urged tech executives to be more inclusive of women and people of color. And in response, the CEOs of Airbnb, Lyft and Intel, among others, initiated an “Inclusion Pledge.”

To date, some 80 companies have pledged to publish annual reports on the makeup of their workforce and to put in place policies and resources to train, recruit and retain more women, blacks and Latinos.

Elizabeth said the pledge created a tiny bit of leverage.

“Signing a pledge isn’t the thing that makes companies change,” she said. “But for the people doing diversity and inclusion work, you can say, ‘Hey, this is what you stated to do and your actions better line up.’ ”

If Obama played good cop by cajoling and flattering tech leaders to change, the Department of Labor has been bad cop.

Erin Connell practices employment law at Orrick in San Francisco and represents companies that do business with the federal government.

“There definitely has been a focus on the technology sector within the Department of Labor,” Connell said.

She says federal compliance officers have taken a tougher, more adversarial tone with tech companies. And for the first time in recent memory, the Department of Labor sued three Silicon Valley companies — Palantir, Google and Oracle — for alleged violations of equal employment opportunity laws.

The companies deny wrongdoing.

Connell speculates that the lawsuits are the Obama administration’s last-ditch effort to try to shore up its legacy.

“With the inauguration right around the corner, I think they’re running out of runway,” Connell said.

She believes the lawsuits will continue under a Trump administration but said “hypothetically, at any time the Department of Labor could choose to no longer pursue these lawsuits.”

Advocates believe that’s exactly what will happen under a Trump administration and fear they’ll lose another pressure point.

But Ellen Pao, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Kapor Capital, is more optimistic. Pao emerged as a vocal advocate for diversity after losing a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2015.

Pao says that in reaction to the election, she’s seen some tech leaders, especially at up-and-coming companies, become even more committed to diversity.

“I’m excited because I think these startups are going to be the next wave of successful startups,” Pao said.

As a co-founder of Project Include, Pao works with CEOs of early-stage startups to try to build a culture of diversity from the start.

“You know in tech there is still very much a herd mentality,” Pao said.

When these new companies become successful with a diverse and inclusive workforce, she said, Trump or no Trump, it will be that success that paves the way for real change in Silicon Valley.

  • eric_blair

    Most likely these lawsuits will putter along for a while and then be quietly settled in return for some vague, essentially unverifiable promises, at a point in the news cycle that is already heavy with other things. Trump has nothing to gain politically by either seriously pursuing diversity lawsuits or by noisily dropping them.

  • Yan Bellavance

    bahahaha those are our leaders? Affraid to speak their minds are they? isn`t finally speaking their mind what turned Ford around from being a company known to produce crappy cars to an actually very descent car company? if so then either: a) resign or b) fire all those who make it uncomfortable for any employee to speak their minds. I know the feeling, but I`ve actually had the balls to stand up for what`s right more than once in my carreer. I said what was on my mind, I`ve violated certain work practices to do the job right, In the end I sacrificed myself for the product heck for making america better. Yes i’ve lost a couple of jobs because of my derogations from the lemming packs but boy am I happy person today with a warm fuzzy feeling inside that accompanies a sense of work well done. I know realize today that I have leadership qualities, I used to beat myself up all the time but then one day it clicked. Imagine if we all did whats right. stop thining about your mercedez and that new plastic surgery for your new wife. Instead put America first. I’ve witnessed a company loses 3 billion dollars in contracts to china because of things like corporate culture peer pressure to stfu about what you really think is right.

    But at the same time, I don’t blame you guys,with the mortgage for the house the new car new baby , other kids to feed and send to college etc.. it puts most people in a situation where Bosses can take advantage of the situation to control the corporate culture attitude and values, it can shut us up can’t it. I’ve had the opportunity to be sort of free like a bird, nothing to lose, a nomad, kid: taken care of, house didn’t own one, car: payed off. So I could literally, stand up one day, go up to a bad manager or boss and tell them straight up: : Yo dumbass! You are running this company like an idiot and it’s about to go bankrupt all thanks to you and your super yes men who couldn’t manage a kniting event at a retirement home.On behalf of all the employes here I would like to tell you: Go suck yourself douche bag!
    ok i`m exagerating but I could do that.

    frankly its more about everyday interaction with colleagues and management without any mental/social blockage, just naturally exchange in an honnest, fair and ethical way always in the goal of doing the best job possible.

    I didn’t always realize I could do this though and was as affraid as most people yet I always did the right thing anyway.

    Irony of it all: Durin the elections I got fired by my muslim boss on the friday they reopned the fbi investigation on hillary;s private email server I had juuuust finished overhauling their website which had sooooooo many bugs I mean… wow what an idiot the senior dev who worked on it before me. a jerk who can’t be criticized, almost has a heart attack everytime some one would submit a bug report. Would ask us new empoloyees to use his api to do our task yet his api sucked didnt work correclty and he refused to admit there was a malfunction with it.

    See where I am getting a? In the end I realized that of course he sux at coding, he never listens to anyone, doesnt take critcis etc….personally, I learned soooo much from listening to others, from receiving critic and truly accepting it and correcting myself. I mean he has alot more years of experience than me but yet I have so many more programming aptitudes and quality of work than him.

    Customers are thankfull, so are the other devs there.

Author

Queena Sook Kim

Queena Sook Kim is the Senior Editor of the Silicon Valley Desk. In this role, she covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area. 

Before taking this post, Queena was the host of The California Report. The daily morning show airs on KQED in San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, and on 30 stations across the state. In that role, she produces and reports on news, politics and life in the Golden State. Queena likes to take sideways look at the larger trends changing the state. One of her favorite stories asked why Latino journalists “over’pronounce” their Spanish surnames as a way of looking at how immigration is creating a culture shift in California.

Before joining The California Report, Queena was a Senior Reporter covering technology for Marketplace, the daily business show that airs on public radio. Queena covered daily tech business stories and reported on larger technology trends. She did a series of stories looking at role of social engineering in hacking and on a start-up in Silicon Valley that’s trying to use technology, instead of animals, to make meat that bleeds.

Queena started her career as a business journalist at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent four years covering the paper, home building and toy industries. She wrote A1 stories about the unusually aggressive tactics KB Home took against its home buyers. and the resurgence of “Cracker” architecture in Florida. She also wrote section front stories on marketing trends and

As a journalist, Queena has spent much of her career helping start-up editorial products. She was on the founding editorial team of The Bay Citizen, an experimental, online news site in San Francisco that was funded by the late hillbilly billionaire Warren Hellman. In 2009, Queena received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to start-up a podcast called CyberFrequencies, which reported on the culture of technology. She also helped start-up two radio shows - Off-Ramp and Pacific Drift - for KPCC, the NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles. Off-Ramp was awarded 1st Place for news and Public Affairs programming by the PRINDI and the L.A. Press club. Queena’s stories have appeared on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, WNYC’s Studio 360, WBUR’s Here and Now, BBC’s Global Perspectives and New York Times’ multimedia page.

In 1994, Queena won a Fulbright Grant to teach and study in Seoul, South Korea. She was also selected to be a Teach For America Corps Member in 1991 and taught elementary school in the Inglewood Unified School District in Southern California.

Queena is a frequent public speaker and has given talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, PRINDI conference and the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp. Queena went to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and graduated cum laude from New York University with a B.A. in Politics. She grew up in Southern California and lives in Berkeley, Ca in a big fixer on which she spends most weekends, well, fixing.

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