Talking with Black Women Engineers about Diversity in Silicon Valley
I worked for a small online social-networking service in Silicon Valley from 2006 to 2009. Of the 100 or so people on my team, more than 60 of them were women, and nearly 20 were black or Hispanic. At that time, this didn’t seem so remarkable to me. After all, our numbers more or less reflected my personal norm, both in my community growing up in Oakland and throughout college. But soon after I joined, an executive came to speak to my team, who opened my eyes.
The first thing she said to us, with a look of shock on her face, was, “Wow! You’re so … *diverse*.” Some of the brown people in the room, including me, sort of giggled uncomfortably and exchanged glances, because her surprised statement seemed like the thing a white lady living in Palo Alto might say. It was only after that awkward moment that I realized my team was so unusual, and that our group’s diversity wasn’t planned, it was accidental. I became more aware of the lack of women and people of color all over the Valley and in particular at my own company. I don’t have data for the whole company at that time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our team’s percentage of women and minorities was higher than the rest of the organization’s. It certainly didn’t feel like a diverse place outside our cozy group.
A month ago, I returned to tech to work at Slack. Sadly, very little changed during the seven years that I was gone, and there still is consistent racial (2) in Silicon Valley. I’m proud, however, that the company I joined is demonstrating that, for an entire workplace to be truly inclusive and diverse, the transformation must not happen as an unintentional surprise or by accident.
Earlier this month, Slack took the (3) its annual (4). To me, this move didn’t reflect some self-congratulatory message that we are doing better than our peers; rather, it was a gut check that recognized the need for persistent measurement. What stood out especially was Slack’s release of intersectional data, which often is not reported among tech companies. Slack shared that 9 percent of our engineering organization identifies as women of color.
What follows is a conversation about diversity in tech with Duretti Hirpa, Erica Baker, and Megan Anctil, all of whom are black women engineers who work at Slack.
**Meena Harris:** In your previous jobs, some of you were the only black people in your engineering departments. Does a general lack of diversity by itself make the Valley feel unwelcoming to people of color?
**Erica Baker:** To walk around and not see anybody who looks like you makes the Valley feel unwelcoming to people of color. But it’s not a very obvious feeling.
**Duretti Hirpa:** It’s isolating.
**Erica:** Isolating, but not immediate. It’s not like, “Oh, I feel bad.” It takes a while; it’s a slow buildup of pain that you’re feeling, because you’re so isolated, but you can’t put your finger on the isolation.
**Duretti:** Until you’re in a room with other people of color.
**Erica:** Then you’re like, “Oh, I don’t feel that anymore!” We had a event recently, and just being in a room that was all people of color and, like, one white dude sitting in the back, Stewart \, made me realize, like, “Oh! OK, that weird feeling I was having was that.”
**Meena:** It sounds like you’re also saying that it’s not hostile, or at least it’s not immediately hostile.
**Duretti:** What’s that phrase, “Death by a thousand paper cuts”? It’s not like you’re being shot at all the time, but it’s slow things that can make you feel less like a person over time. I feel like I’m far away. You feel like you don’t belong because you don’t see anybody that looks like you.
> You feel like you don’t belong because you don’t see anybody that looks like you.
**Erica:** Representation is such a huge deal. I can’t know that women of color get promoted in engineering in this industry. I can’t know that a woman of color can be an senior vice president of engineering because there are none. I don’t know any women of color that are director or above. Plenty are in nontechnical roles, but not one in a technical role.
**Meena:** Many feel that “diversity in tech” has in practice come to mean creating opportunities for white women rather than people of color. Do you agree? As women of color, how do you grapple with this?
**Megan Anctil:** It’s hard, especially because there are a lot of well-intentioned white women who don’t realize what they’re doing. They look at you, and given the rarity of women of color in the engineering space, in some ways it’s just like, “I’m going to erase your color and you’re just going to fit into this bucket with me because we can push this agenda for women forward.” They often don’t think about the circumstances that make it harder to be accepted when you’re a woman of color versus just a white woman.
One of the things that’s hardest is figuring out how to bring those discussions up with white women. It’s the same way when as a woman you’re trying to explain things to men, and sometimes men get defensive and it all becomes about hurting their feelings. It gets even harder when you’re trying to explain to white women, because oftentimes it’s easy to respond with “But I’m also a persecuted group. I also have problems. We should be on the same team.” But no, we can’t lump all of our problems together. It’s the same reason why we can be an ally for LGBTQ rights but our struggles in tech are going to be totally different, and I’m not going to try to lump everything together and try to solve everything the same exact way.
**Meena:** Do you view the movement for white women in tech as one where you actually can find some common ground and objectives? Or do you believe that if any progress is to be made, it must be distinguished and separate?
**Megan:** There’s overlap, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the things that fall outside of that Venn diagram. There are definitely issues that, as a woman, regardless of my color, I’m going to face discrimination for, whether it’s family and children or something else. At the same time, there are separate problems that I face as a woman of color, and it’s important for white women to acknowledge that just solving our allied interests doesn’t mean I am happy. There are separate things that need to be worked on for me that can’t be fixed by this other thing.
**Meena:** Coding, at least to people like me who are nontechnical, is an objective practice. Meaning, people have argued that “diversity doesn’t affect outcomes in engineering. Like math and science: if you’re good, you will get the same answer.” What does this mean for diversity?
**Megan:** There’s a misconception. People both in tech and outside of tech like to think of coding as this austere, right-or-wrong process, or these siloed algorithms that are efficient or not efficient. That’s why it’s easy to say, “If you code, either it’s right or it’s wrong; it’s good or it’s not.” We don’t really portray coding in any other way in the media or elsewhere. That’s part of the problem. That’s where the idea of meritocracy comes in, because then you think, since it’s right or it’s wrong, if someone hasn’t excelled to a particular level or someone’s not getting hired, it’s because they just don’t know math, or they don’t know science.
I like to think of engineering as building a house. It’s building large-scale systems, and whether you’re junior and you’re working on a small part of that system or you’re more senior and you’re building out that whole system, it requires you to put together a lot of different things. Engineers have a lot of opinions. There’s numerous types of software, numerous databases, numerous ways to build. Everyone has an opinion on which of those is best, or why they are the best solution for this particular problem. It’s all subjective.
**Meena:** Why does being a person of color matter to building that house?
**Megan:** Everybody solves their problems in a different way. It’s the basic fact that, if everyone goes to the same schools and learns the same things and works at the same places with the same people, they are more likely to think the same way. You need people who’ve had different experiences, whether it’s race, gender, or sexuality, or anything.
> You need people who’ve had different experiences, whether it’s race, gender, or sexuality, or anything.
**Erica:** I have a concrete example of how having diversity on an engineering team improves or can affect a product: facial-recognition issues in cameras. Every time a manufacturer releases a facial-recognition feature in a camera, almost always it can’t recognize black people. The cause of that is the people who are building these products are white people and they’re testing it on themselves. They don’t think about it.
**Meena:** Most people make the moral and emotional argument that “diversity matters,” but there’s also practical appeal, that (5) because it’s a competitive advantage. Do you agree? For companies to make meaningful change, do you think the latter argument needs to be prominent?
**Megan:** I definitely think we have to. I would love to live in a world where you can make arguments based on morals and ethics, but money makes the world go round. If you can’t prove that something is financially good for a business, it’s not going to go through. On the one hand, we’re very emotional creatures, but it also means we tend to have our own opinions. Once people are set in those opinions, it’s hard to sway them for moral reasons.
On the other hand, it’s easier to sway people with studies that show that more diverse companies actually have better financial outcomes. That is a fact. That is not an opinion. While I would like to think that we could get by making changes in diversity with just the moral argument, the fact that it has existed for decades and still hasn’t moved people means we still have a long way to go.
**Erica:** The business appeal is important, but it’s tricky. Because once you make it a business issue, companies can rank it. When you say this will make us more money, they will ask, “How much more money?” Then they will rank it on the priority stack with other stuff that makes money, and if it doesn’t make them as much money as, say, hiring a bunch of white dudes quickly, then they will continue to hire them. It’s more financially feasible to hire a bunch of white dudes; companies can deprioritize diversity if you make it a business issue.
**Meena:** There seem to be two main sides to the diversity debate: bias versus pipeline. On one side are those who believe that the lack of people of color in tech is due to implicit bias and homogeneity in recruiting and hiring, while others believe the biggest obstacle is a “pipeline” issue. Meaning there simply aren’t enough diverse candidates who are qualified because, for example, students of color are less likely to be exposed to programming. Is it possible that both sides are right?
**Megan:** Both are right. The pipeline problem is not a myth, but companies rely on the pipeline as a crutch. It’s used as an excuse to say “We can’t find candidates, therefore, let’s focus our efforts on the employees that are here already.” It’s an excuse not to work on hiring or finding diverse candidates. The flip side is companies who focus all of their efforts on hiring and don’t worry about what happens to people once they get in. You have to basically work on everything.
**Duretti:** There’s this phrase: “The pipeline ends in a meat grinder.”
**Erica:** The problem with people saying it’s not a pipeline issue is that they’re trying to make it into a single-issue problem. It’s not a single-issue problem. It’s the diversity. It’s the inclusion. It’s the bias. It’s the lack of equity. It’s the lack of promotions. It’s all of the above. There are so many different problems that need to be addressed, and saying any one is bigger than the other is doing a disservice to the rest. They’re all equally important, and they all need to be addressed. It’s not an easy thing to be fixed, but people want it to be easy.
**Meena:** Can a company practically and effectively address all of these? If you’re CEO, what do you do? I’m not asking you all right now to solve the problem of diversity in tech, but where do we start? Megan said before that the first step is to recognize the problem. Is that it?
**Erica:** Stewart already does it. The first step is to be woke and make that a priority. I want to understand the systemic injustices that are facing our society as a whole and how they affect my company. That’s the first step.
**Megan:** I think the second step is to hire someone where this is their job. Erica’s opinion is that the CEO is the person who spearheads this.
**Erica:** If the CEO is the one whom others have to be accountable to, and the diversity head is the one who is driving the initiatives, but the accountability still comes from the CEO level, then that’s cool.
**Duretti:** A lot of times those positions are toothless. We have this position but there’s no accountability, and no one has to answer to that person. If you’re releasing your numbers year after year, and you have a diversity and inclusion officer, and those numbers stay the same, that person should be fired.
*This interview has been condensed and edited.*
*Meena Harris is senior policy manager at Slack. She is also the creator of (1), a brand that supports and promotes women’s economic empowerment.*