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Why Diversity of Geeks in Tech Matters

Sarah Thomas

Geeks come from all backgrounds, genders and ethnicities, but you might not see that by looking around Silicon Valley.

Speak With a Geek (SWAG) was formed in response to the lack of diversity amongst "geeks" in the tech industry, especially those in technical roles. The San Francisco-based talent agency is focused on providing companies with millions of qualified, vetted job applicants. Within SWAG, Annie Ryan leads the charge on ensuring the applicant pool is diverse. As it is today, 56% are considered diverse candidates.

As director of diversity and inclusion, Ryan is able to draw on her African and African-American Studies degree from Stanford University, her personal experiences in the Valley and those of friends, as well as her passion for championing underrepresented identities. She believes that inclusive tech teams benefit not only the companies they serve, but also society as a whole. Her goal is to ensure there are more of them across the industry.

She shared her thoughts with WiC on how companies and recruiters can ensure they are doing everything they can to build a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Annie Ryan, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Speak With a Geek (SWAG)
Annie Ryan, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Speak With a Geek (SWAG)

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Women in Comms: Tell us about your personal and professional background.

Annie Ryan: I went to Stanford for undergrad studying African and African-American Studies and International Relations. With those two academic experiences in my background, and being in the lap of Silicon Valley, I was really influenced by seeing all my fellow friends -- male and female and all minority backgrounds -- seeing them all go into tech and have these sometimes concerning personal experiences that I would dig into. I would talk to them about what their experience was like as a particular underrepresented minority in tech and found myself intrigued by the problems. My academic background influenced me when I was considering my next career move. I interned for three years with the 3 Percent Conference working with Kat Gordan, a thought leader in the ad industry who focused on gender inclusion in that industry. I learned a lot from her.

From that perspective, it all culminated with my undergrad experience -- talking to peers and living in the Valley drove me toward working in diversity and inclusion in tech. It's not an easy pathway. It was a really intense passion for social justice in all its forms, and the most immediate way to get involved was in tech. It was really profound personal experiences from my peers and all the reading I did and all the learning in my academic years on the history of social injustice and how it manifests today. To have all these challenges now in 2016 is not unique but is interesting at its best.

WiC: What were some of the experiences your friends in tech shared with you?

AR: I would hear about my friends being tokenized. Tech companies in 2014 were at the beginning of a metrics push where they’d publish all their data about their diversity stats and improvements or the lack of improvements, so there was always a drive to recruit and focus on recruiting more female engineers that year for their summer internship program or reach out to historically black colleges to get minority representation of interns up. There were a variety of ways tech companies would recruit to focus on upping diversity stats. In my college experience, I'd see people of minority backgrounds feeling like they were alone in that industry and were there as a filler or requirement, but not being included. Tech knows what its problem is. They know diversity has to be enhanced, but what they are missing now is going to the next step to be inclusive. It's one thing to bring in fresh talent that varies across the board, but it's another to put your money where their mouth is.

It's not ill intent but a lack of focus about how to actually get it done. We don’t always focus enough on metrics. We feel it’s better and improved, but there’s a lot of ways to dig in and design metrics around these things to figure out if you’re moving the needle or not.

WiC: Why was Speak with a Geek started, and what is the goal?

AR: It’s a seven-year-old company, founded in 1999, that’s always had a focus on diversity and inclusion. Our numbers show that 56% of candidates in our pool are diverse or underrepresented [in the industry] in some way. It could be gender or minority. We are very proud of that and are excited to represent so many people that are extremely qualified and to represent good candidates in the field. We are proud to have a strong resource pool of people. Oftentimes tech companies have trouble sourcing the talent. We have the talent. Now we just need to bring them in and incorporate them in companies.

We have so many partnership arms and proposals out to companies to work with them to do anything under the sun related to diversity. I’m a certified diversity professional. I got certified in that specific realm of business, so I design strategies around diversity and inclusion, reaching into every business unit and figuring out how to achieve goals in actionable ways.

WiC: Is it accurate to say there is a lack of female talent available, or are companies going about recruiting in the wrong way?

AR: There are pain points in the pipeline, and it's a matter of figuring out where our problem comes from with lack of access in recruiting. I don't think it's a false claim. Recruiting departments often have troubles accessing talent for very real reasons. Young girls are encouraged not to go into STEM fields unconsciously -- or not -- from a very young age. That’s a contributor to why we see fewer women now going into tech. That's something none of us can solve single-handedly. It takes sustained effort from everyone to figure out how to change that. It also extends into this first level of access for women. It’s the hiring process. It's difficult for women because of that implicit bias. There are fewer women going into STEM, but I don’t think the pipeline is an issue. The talent is there. It just takes a desire to find the right diverse candidates.

WiC: How can companies begin to improve how they recruit to attract a more diverse applicant pool and improve their own internal diversity?

AR: I think there is this big umbrella that goes into that. On the onset, you need to look internally in the company and really assess what’s going on there and whether or not you’re accessible to the widest group of candidates. That can also start at the most basic level, looking at job descriptions, seeing if there's gendered language that one gender is more likely to respond to or feel more favorable about. There is so much in descriptions that's not attuned to your average person -- it's very aggressive or there are elements that would make it so men are willing to apply but women may be intimidated. Not to say that’s by any means all women. That's a hindrance all companies run across that they may not be aware of.

It starts with job descriptions. There was coverage of a study we did where we blinded resumes of 5,000 candidates sent to employers. Fifty-four percent of people chosen to be interviewed were women. Un-blinded, with gender information accessible, to the same companies, only 5% of women were selected. There is an obvious implicit bias that even effects women in resume screens. You need to figure out if it’s happening in your company, what do you do? Blind auditions and resumes is a great way to circumvent that at [the application] process, especially in technical roles.

Beyond that, it's important to have a diverse interview panel and have people that represent all kinds of identities on the panel. It makes your interviewees feel like they can see upward mobility in the company and see where they'd fit in. It also works to make sure you have different people on the panel identifying with more of that person than someone else might. It gives you a full understanding of each candidate to have many people from many business units and backgrounds evaluating the candidates at the best of their ability.

WiC: Do you often hear the excuse that someone is not a "good cultural fit" for a company, and is that a legitimate concern?

AR: Cultural fit is huge in tech companies. They are really proud of their culture and being a fun place to work. Sometimes, not intentionally, those cultures get very homogenous. You can't imagine a group of homogenous interviewers feeling like they relate to the person on the other side of the table and might not be the same gender. Those all fit into cultural fit. Blind auditions help let you assess talent before they come into the room.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

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User Rank: Light Sabre
12/12/2016 | 1:33:28 PM
Blind resumes
Love this talk. Really interesting about the blind resumes. This just came up in WiCipedia last week! I didn't realize it was prevalent though.
Kelsey Ziser
Kelsey Ziser,
User Rank: Blogger
12/13/2016 | 12:10:28 PM
Cultural Fit
Shifting away from a homogenous company culture sounds like a tall order. Blind auditions sounds a little like treating a symptom, not the disease. Curious to hear more examples of companies that have successfully changed corporate mindsets and supported a more diverse workforce.
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/28/2016 | 4:41:11 PM
Re: Cultural Fit
The idea of blind resumes and other techniques should go a long way eliminating the phenomena of "people of minority backgrounds feeling like they were alone in that industry and were there as a filler or requirement, but not being included." Although there's still a lot of factors involved in getting to inclusive and successful offices, this is a good step forward.
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