Cool Hi-Tech brands finally hit by harsh D&I reality

For many years, Diversity managers in traditional sectors admired high-tech companies for their cool HR and D&I programmes. More recently, the D&I community has started to frown over negative headlines from some ‘cool’ businesses. A closer look at Apple, Google and Facebook.

The ITC industry has traditionally been a strong player in the D&I arena. On the one hand due to their need for scarce talent, on the other hand side because the talent pool tended to be very multi-cultural but not very gender-balanced. This sector was changed early on and in a significant way by the emergence – and success – of those overhauling traditional business models, including Google, Facebook, eBay, Uber, LinkedIn, Twitter or AirBnB. Both, for brand value and talent attraction, they compete directly with Apple and Microsoft but also with the large, more traditional tech-corps including IBM, HP, Cisco or Intel.

D&I issues can threaten the business

In February 2017, Uber was dragged into the limelight over allegations of sexual harassment combined with attempts to brush the case(s) under the carpet. This led to investigations, resignations, including of the CEO, 20 employees fired and – eventually – a delay of the planned IPO. Such turmoil is not what the D&I world expected from cool webby techy firms. But also other brands, including but not limited to Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, were increasingly under observation – and criticised – for the strong dominance of white men in their workforce and – even more strongly – in their management. It wasn’t until a few years ago that many started to release annual D&I reports.

Apple: The all-white hybrid giant

Apple, with over 100,000 employees one of giants in the industry, has a hybrid profile which consists of traditional IT consumer products like computers and smartphones as well as a strong priority on innovation that has already disrupted the industry several times (even before the dotcom business models started to emerge). Therefore, it is interesting to see how the companies has developed regarding D&I. The company’s latest data are from June 2016, when Apple had 68% men and 32% women in their workforce. Over the previous 12 months, they had hired 63% men and 37% women (up from 31% in 2014 and 35 in 2015). The new hires also included 54% non-white ethnicities (compared to 44% in the workforce). The numbers seem to be aligned with Tim Cook’s pledge to continue to make Apple more divers and inclusive. And in fact, the cliff between workforce and leadership diversity seems to be less steep than at other companies. Apple reports global leadership numbers to be 72% men and 28% women, and 67% white and 33 % non-white.

While survey-based rankings consistently rank Apple in the top employer group, the company also suffered from some scandals, including alleged rape jokes that were reported to have been ignored.

Google: The unique – and sometimes scary – top dog of the web

With already more than 60,000 employees worldwide, Google is no longer the small innovation firm that can act beyond rules and phenomena of large organisations and structures. The company reports 69% men and 31% women in their global workforce and 56% white and 44& non-white in the U.S. (as of Jan 2017). In leadership roles, they have 75% men and 25% women (up from 22% in 2014 and 25% in 2015), and 68% white and 32% non-white (U.S.).

Although Google is said to have been the first large player in their field to publish diversity data (in 2014), the current numbers do not provide detail regarding, for example, hiring (as Apple does). Their unparalleled business model allows Google to launch initiatives (e.g. innovation labs) or conduct research (e.g. into effective teams) that other companies find difficult to implement. However, their unique profile could not save Google from allegations about discrimination, which were brought up by the (U.S.) Department of Labor in April 2017.

Facebook: With an added LGBT value

With some 20,000 employees, Facebook looks small compared to the previous examples. The company also grew quickly as the Internet became a major business location. As of June 2016, the company reports a 67% male and 33 % female workforce, and 73 % male and 27% female leadership population. For the U.S. Facebook reports 52% white and 48% non-white workforce, and 71% white and 29% non-white leadership. An innovative element of their Diversity report is the result of a voluntary survey of their U.S. employees about LGBT diversity to which 61% responded and 7% self-identified as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender or asexual.

The Tech vs. Commercial (Gender) Gap

Compared to some other industries, many of the numbers look quite good. However, some of the Hi-tech players also report their Diversity numbers by function. At Facebook, for example, 83 % of global tech employees are male, 17 % female. At Google the figures are 80 and 20%, at Apple 77 and 23 % respectively. These numbers are not necessarily indicators that D&I programmes have failed, they are to some extent a direct reflection of the (lack of) diversity in relevant talent pools. Facebook included some strong numbers about the U.S. situation in their Diversity Report 2016 – along with the announcement to donate $15M to over the next five years.

Beyond the numbers: Engagement and Innovation?

While the representation numbers continue to dominate the public discourse – and above all the criticism – in D&I, an increasing body of research shows that individual and collective open-mindedness as well as inclusive processes and behaviours are required in order to leverage differences. These aspects are measured by employee or engagement surveys, including those surveys conducted by external organisations. In this area, the fabulous reputation of cool hi-tech firms shows up and reminds us why we have admired them in the first place. Most of the companies mentioned in this article show up in the top group of several surveys:

  • The job site Payscale conducted a survey among 18 hi-tech firms regarding satisfaction and/or stress. Facebook employees provided by far the most positive answers of all, Google and Apple both appeared in the upper half.
  • Fairygodboss anonymously surveys employees, looking for the best companies for women. Results rated Google on rank 10 and Apple number 1 (at the end of 2016). Results are updated daily and include companies for whom more than 30 reviews are received. As of 28 July, Apple was on rank 7, Google on 13.

That the result of any such ranking relies entirely on the chosen criteria is shown by the D&I Index created by Thomson Reuters. That list does not have either Alphabet/Google, Apple or Facebook among the Top 100. Two reasons could be that the index only considers companies from the Thomson Reuters Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) database and the D&I Index only includes companies with scores across all four pillars the index has defined (Diversity, Inclusion, People Development and News Controversy).

When reviewing D&I literature from the kind of hi-tech firms discussed in this article – do you generally see strategies or tools that are standing out from the general D&I landscape? The answer, based on the research that was done to write this text, is “not really”. To a large part, we attribute this to the ongoing representation focus that is noticeable, especially as it relates to the U.S. side of the businesses (where underrepresented minorities [URMs] are a set focus, leading to specific recruiting programmes, slates etc.). The wider action framework mirrors quite well the good practice landscape in D&I: Unconscious Bias workshops, donations to special interest NGOs, benefits for caregivers, removing biases from HR policies or processes (pay gap, disparities in development etc), and employee resource groups. According to a Fortune article, all heads of D&I at Intel, Facebook, Cisco, Google, Apple were female (at the end of 2015).

The bottom-line

An overview of some of the admired hi-tech firms shows that yes, they have clear strengths in D&I. Some are related to the cool business they are in, others are linked to the fact that some of them grew in recent decades, when the world (and the labour market) was already globalised. However, when it comes to occasional issues and D&I programmes, they also just put their pants on one leg at a time. Nevertheless, the public engagement data suggest that the workplace reality in that cool part of the sector is much better than at an average corporation.