The Issue of Unconscious Bias in the Tech Industry

October 23, 2015 Appirio


A hot-button issue in the tech industry today is lack of diversity in the workforce. Industry leaders like Google, Facebook, and Salesforce have taken notice, and are making public declarations to change the way they hire, pay, and promote, and to create a more welcoming environment for women and minorities.

Facebook trains employees on managing unconscious bias

In a recent press release, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer for Facebook, acknowledged the unconscious bias that exists in people’s minds when it comes to minorities, and discussed Facebook’s commitment to managing these biases and diversifying their workforce demographics.

“One of the most important things we can do to promote diversity in the workplace is to correct for the unconscious bias that all of us have. Studies show that job applicants with ‘black sounding names’ are less likely to get callbacks than those with ‘white sounding names’ — and applicants called Jennifer are likely to be offered a lower salary than applicants called John,” said Sandberg.

According to USA Today, Facebook’s U.S. workforce consists of only 4 percent Hispanics and 2 percent African Americans. Fifty-five percent of Facebook’s U.S. employees are white and 36 percent are Asian. Men make up 68 percent of their entire international workforce.

Facebook has been offering unconscious bias training since late 2013, but their latest version — which they developed with researchers this year — consists of case studies, workshops, and presentations, and focuses on 4 types of bias. They have made videos of their training presentation available online.

What exactly does “unconscious bias” mean?

Social psychologists say it refers to people unknowingly taking unconscious “mental shortcuts” based on social norms and stereotypes. When those mental shortcuts manifest themselves in the workplace, it can lead companies to hire and promote more white men. It can also cause companies to pay women and minorities less than their white male counterparts, and create a culture where they feel alienated or excluded — all of which may cause them to quit, or hinder them from applying to those companies in the first place.

Google was the first major tech company to shed light on unconscious bias and lack of diversity in the industry. Like Facebook, Google began training their employees on unconscious bias in 2013, but have now begun holding hands-on “bias-busting” workshops, in which they coach employees on how to recognize and combat hidden prejudices.

Salesforce tackles diversity in the C-Suite

Salesforce has also come out against the gender and racial disparity in tech, and has committed to building a more diverse workforce. In a recent blog post, Cindy Robbins, EVP of Global Employee Success at Salesforce said, “We’ve realized that we need to add another facet to our core principles: a commitment to building a more diverse workforce that mirrors the communities where we work and live.”

Salesforce plans to focus on 3 areas for improving diversity: equal pay, equal advancement, and equal opportunity. When it comes to recruiting and hiring, they plan to address unconscious bias through employee awareness training and by following a more competencies-based interview structure. They have also implemented a process in which at least one female or underrepresented minority candidate is interviewed for all executive positions.

According to Robbins, nearly 40 percent of all new Salesforce hires in the U.S. over the last year were either women or minorities, and 19 percent of executives are now women — an increase of 27 percent from last year.

The problems that exist today due to unconscious bias and lack of diversity amongst American employers — in the tech industry and beyond — will not be solved overnight. But it is certainly encouraging to see tech leaders acknowledging the problems and making significant efforts to create an industry that is more inclusive, fair, and welcoming to all.

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