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Google's White Male-Heavy Staff Underlines Tech's Diversity Problem

A long line for a men's room at a 2009 tech conference in Omaha, Neb. Photos of this situation have now inspired a Twitter feed.
A long line for a men's room at a 2009 tech conference in Omaha, Neb. Photos of this situation have now inspired a Twitter feed.

When it finally published a demographic breakdown of its workforce this week, tech giant Google admitted, "We've always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it's time to be candid about the issues."

This is what the numbers showed: Google's staff is made up of 70 percent men, is 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian, and all other races and ethnicities don't register above 5 percent.

As a point of comparison, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show 47 percent of the total workforce in the United States is made up of women, 80 percent of U.S. employees are white, 12 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian.

All the talk about meritocracy in tech is confounding when you hold it up against this data; if the technology industry is truly a meritocracy, does it follow that the people with merit are overwhelmingly white and male?

Google brings up the pipeline problem as a possible explanation for its whiteness: It has limited hiring pools of people of color and women:

"Women earn roughly 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics make up under 10 percent of U.S. college grads and collect fewer than 5 percent of degrees in CS majors, respectively."

Education in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) is important, to be sure. We've reported on the social science that shows stereotypes lead girls to quit science.

But there are other ways to think about the utter dominance of white males in tech: Technology journalist Kara Swisher and tech mogul Vivek Wadhwa blame laziness in hiring. The Wall Street Journal reports:

"Ms. Swisher and Mr. Wadhwa both cited laziness as the main culprit for what they described as covert racism and sexism in the sector. People in positions of power, namely those funding companies and appointing board members, too often get comfortable with their immediate familiars and fail to take a wider view of talented people in the industry and world, they said."

The data are helpful. As our guest blogger Catherine Bracy wrote for us last summer, closing the gender gap in technology requires clearer and better data on the extent of the problem.

When pressed by journalists, major tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Cisco, IBM and Microsoft have simply not replied or refused to give up their workforce demographic breakdowns. San Jose Mercury News reporter Mike Swift had to sue the Labor Department to get some numbers. In 2010, after a two-year legal battle, the department ultimately gave him a single set of aggregate race and gender stats for Silicon Valley's 10 largest companies. ( Mother Jones writes an excellent piece detailing those figures.)

Google has since reversed course on its refusal to share, and with data can come more understanding and conversation about the issue. We have requests out to various tech companies to see if they, too, are interested in a similar about-face. We'll follow up if they share.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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