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Protesters demand hiring equality at Google; few women take computer science classes

By Jamie Hansen | 11 Apr 2011

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Robert Gray, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford since 1969, keeps a photo in his crowded office to remind him of the one year he had more female graduates than male. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

Priyanka Sharma contributed to this report.

Robert Gray, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford since 1969, keeps a photo in his crowded office to remind him of the one year he had more female graduates than male.

That hasn’t happened since, and the sheer volume of the hairstyles on the women shown in the photo indicates how much time has passed since that milestone — 15 years.

Gray won a national presidential award for mentoring women in electrical engineering, and during the late 20th century, he saw universities make some progress toward educating more women in his field. But now, he says, that progress has peaked — and may even be declining.

He’s not alone in that concern. A slew of recent studies indicate that fewer women and underrepresented minorities — mainly Blacks and Latinos — are choosing technical sciences in high school, college or at the professional level.

In February, minority groups protested outside the huge tech company's Mountain View headquarters. (Photo by Jamie Hansen)

That’s why more than two-dozen protesters were picketing Google on Feb. 10. Three minority groups — the Black Economic Council, the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles and the National Asian American Coalition — organized the protest after Google and 21 other Silicon Valley tech companies refused to share information about the minorities  they hire.

Google refused to comment directly on the groups’ charges, that the company lacks transparency. Spokespeople offered only a boilerplate  statement that Google supports diversity through numerous programs.

But 12 companies were willing to disclose hiring data — Intel, E-Bay and Cisco among them — and the numbers show that, for most of those companies, the representation of women, Blacks, Latinos doesn’t look good. Asians also lack proportionate representation.

The minority groups charge that the companies, most of which receive money from the federal government, hire mostly foreign male workers when they should be hiring from a diverse pool of American citizens.

Most of these companies contend that they do try to hire women and minorities, but the problem extends back to grade school and college, where women, Blacks and Latinos tend to fall through the cracks long before the tech companies can hire them.

Intel, for instance, has a “global diversity group” that works to retain employees from underrepresented groups. Tiffany Rogers, who works in that group, said Intel attends numerous tech conferences for minorities throughout the year, trying to recruit and hire.

But Rogers added  that hiring a diverse work force is not always as easy as having good intentions. Perhaps the biggest problem, she said, is numerous tech companies competing for the same, small pool of diverse employees.

The supply problem has deep roots

Caroline Simard says problems in minority hiring occur both on the supply side -- grade schools and universities -- and within the tech companies themselves. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

Caroline Simard, vice president for research at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, said lack of diversity in tech companies is a classic chicken and egg problem. Sixteen tech companies partner with her institute, and all have difficulty retaining underrepresented groups — in part because there’s a small pool to choose from.

Meanwhile, grade-school teachers and professors have trouble generating interest in the field in part because the field offers few role models.

But one thing’s clear, she said: Supply is a legitimate issue for companies — and one with very deep roots.

“The problem starts very young, with parents and teachers being less likely to encourage their students to pursue careers in these fields,” she said. “There’s an image problem. With not many role models to look up to, the only image that comes to mind is nerds and geeks.”

Because of that, perhaps,  the number of women graduating with tech-related degrees is declining.

Data from nine Stanford upper-level computer science classes shows male students dramatically outnumber female students. (Visualization by Jamie Hansen)

In 2010, Stanford student Kate Heddleston conducted a study on women in computer science at Stanford. She found that, particularly in higher-level classes, women make up a small fraction of the students. In one class, they composed only seven percent of the student body. Her study also showed that the percent of bachelors’ degrees the computer science department awards to women has been dropping steadily since 2005, from 17 percent  to 4 percent in 2009.

Similarly, a 2010 study from the University of Oklahoma found that in the top 50 electrical engineering departments, women comprised only 9.7 percent of faculty. At Stanford, for instance, Gray found that women made up only 8.6 percent of the electrical engineering faculty, while they comprised 41.5 percent of all university professors. He also found that at UC Berkeley, another feeder school for tech companies, things were slightly better. There, women made up 9.8 percent of the electrical engineering faculty, compared with 40.5 percent of the total faculty.

And this is where Robert Gray thinks one of the biggest problems lies.

“If there’s no woman on an engineering faculty, then that department isn’t very welcoming to women,” he said.

In a presentation he gave last year, Gray said the problem propagates itself when universities don’t actively strive to correct it. He cited common, unintentional biases he hears cropping up in faculty hiring, like, “We can’t let diversity affect quality” and “But, we just hired a woman.”

Simard added that universities and companies face similar recruitment problems:  People like to hire those who are similar to themselves. Also, they may limit their search by looking for people with certain skills that women and minorities may lack, having generally come to tech later in life.

While problems at the grade school and university level do create a “bottleneck,” as Gray puts it, many groups insist that companies have problems of their own hiring and actually retaining their employees.

She said many companies still ask biased interview questions, hire from only a very select group of schools and don’t keep positions open long enough to get a diverse pool of applicants.

Then, there’s the matter of keeping employees once they’re hired.

A study by the New York-based Center for Work-life Policy recently showed that 56 percent of women quit their jobs mid-career. Of those who quit, over half gave up their technical training to pursue another career altogether.

“Honestly, we can’t afford that,” Simard said.

Similar problems exist for Blacks and Latinos. A joint report between the Palo Alto-based Anita Borg Institute and Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research showed that Hispanic and Latina women are almost completely absent from high-level technical jobs, while African American men and women combined make up less than 4 percent of all high-level technical workers.

Another problem, Simard said, is that most companies don’t work hard enough to mitigate feelings of isolation that can come from not having many similar colleagues.

The solution? Companies must do better at the executive level, she said. “Who you have in your leadership is very indicative of your commitment to diversity.”

Intel’s Rogers agreed: “Leadership support is key,” she wrote in an email. “There is a noticeable difference in how the whole organization engages with diversity when there is leadership support.”

Meanwhile, Google and other companies have kept a closed fist around their hiring data.

The groups that protested outside Google are still working to get more information. They believe having that information “in the sunlight” will spark an important conversation in the Valley.

“We wanted them to sit down and have a meeting with us and develop programs to hire American citizens,” said Jorge Corralejo, chairman of the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s a lose-lose when they don’t.”

Intel, agreeing, contacted the San Jose Mercury News to share its employment data following an article the newspaper published about tech companies’ lack of transparency.

“There’s nothing to hide, in our view,” said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

Both Corralejo and Simard say many companies have made significant progress in some regards. For instance, many now acknowledge that they have a problem to work on.

“You rarely hear anymore, oh, there’s no problem, this problem doesn’t exist,” said Corralejo. “They recognize it’s something they need to work on.”

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