Pinterest has just done something quite radical for a tech company. The image-sharing social network has publicly laid out actual firm goals for diversifying its workforce.
In the past year or so, tech firms including Google, Facebook, and Twitter started to publicly report their diversity data (which was in all cases pretty darn disappointing, but hardly unexpected). It was an important step towards acknowledging the big, white, male problem. Pinterest's publicly announced hiring goals may work toward actually doing something about it.
In a blog post, cofounder Evan Sharp put a number on the company's 2016 targets for hiring both women and employees from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds (i.e. not white or Asian).
They are: to increase full-time engineering roles to 30 percent female and 8 percent underrepresented backgrounds; increase non-engineering roles to 12 percent underrepresented backgrounds; and make sure at least one woman and one person from an underrepresented background is interviewed for leadership positions (a tactic also being tried out by Facebook).
Those figures may not seem like an equitable split, but they're a short-term goal that would mark an improvement on Pinterest's current figures. While the social site is known for its largely female user base (a 2014 Pew report found 42 percent of American women who were online used the site compared to just 13 percent of men), the imbalance, as is the Silicon Valley norm, goes the other way when it comes to inside the office.
"We think one reason it's been so hard to get numbers to change is that companies haven't stated specific goals."
According to the Pinterest post, the company currently has a global workforce that's 42 percent female across the board, but only 21 percent female when it comes to "tech" and 19 percent across engineering positions. In the US, Pinterest hires with an ethnic background other than white or Asian make up just 7 percent; a figure that decreases to 5 percent in tech roles and less than 4 in engineering.
Those figures are in the same ballpark as we've seen with other tech companies, like Google and Facebook. But as Fusion's Kristen Brown points out, Pinterest is perhaps in a good position to lead the change, as the company is small enough that a relatively low number of hires could make a real impact on the numbers.
Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou has been a leading force behind Silicon Valley's slowly increasing transparency when it comes to diversity; she set up a database in 2013 for companies to count up their female engineers and thus kickstart a more open dialogue about the gender gap.
As Darold Cuba wrote for Motherboard recently, the representation of Black and Hispanic workers in the tech industry is even worse—and not as openly discussed. The Guardian reports that next week, black members of US Congress will meet with companies including Apple and Google to push for greater diversity.
Setting actual targets on gender and race is a bold move. It's one thing to hold your hands up and report depressingly non-diverse diversity stats effectively obscured against a backdrop of equally miserable figures from other companies. It's a promising development to set concrete aims to actually start improving them—and to make yourself accountable by proclaiming them publicly.
"We think one reason it's been so hard to get numbers to change is that companies haven't stated specific goals," Sharp wrote in his announcement, and also pledged to share the company's findings on what works and what doesn't, "so hopefully other companies can learn along with us."
Pinterest says it plans to achieve its goals by setting up "inclusion labs" with strategy firm Paradigm, recruiting from a wider range of universities, giving training to employees about unconscious bias, and creating a mentorship program to "maximize the impact of Black software engineers and students."
While these sound like common sense, the idea of setting goals for hiring women and minorities seems pretty radical against the industry's worn mumblings of "meritocracy." It recognises that this idealism doesn't reflect reality, where there's no such thing as a level playing field, charisma and connections are valued as much as capability, and employers hold biases they may not realise they have.
That last one, at least, is starting to open some eyes in the broader tech scene. Facebook this week released its diversity training resources to the public, which are aimed at helping employees become more aware of common unconscious biases against women and people of color.
For Pinterest, it'll take more than one year's goals—even if they're achieved—to effect sustained change. But with transparency around the numbers, at least there's a way to measure it when it happens.
XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.