What Startups Should Learn from Google & Facebook’s Dismal Diversity Numbers

Over the past year, technology companies have invested a lot of money and time aimed at increasing the gender and racial diversity of their teams. Major industry players like Google and Facebook first released their workforce demographic numbers in mid-2014. So, a year later, what results have been achieved through all that investment?

Much to everyone’s dismay, diversity numbers at big technology companies have barely budged. Out of the combined workforces of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, fewer than 800 employees are black. Facebook only hired seven black people in the past year and increased its percentage of women in tech roles by a mere 1 percent. Google isn’t doing much better.

If technology giants like Google and Facebook can’t seem to meaningfully improve the gender and racial diversity of their workforce, what can smaller companies and startups possibly do?

Most companies can’t afford to spend billions of dollars and thousands of hours on gender and racial diversity efforts.

A major concern arising from this one-year lack-of-progress report is that smaller companies may be dissuaded from even trying to address diversity, given that the significant investments of industry leaders seem to be producing such lackluster results. In fact, this would be precisely the wrong takeaway.

The lesson early and growth-stage startups can learn from the snail-like progress of giants like Google and Facebook is:

It pays to build workforce diversity into your company from the very beginning.

As anyone working in a legacy company or longstanding institution can tell you, change in such a place is extraordinarily slow and hard-won. One of the oft-touted benefits of startup life is the ability to be nimble and make quick changes when it becomes strategically important to do so. In other words, it is a far easier task, for example, to increase your percentage of women employees from 35% to 50% if your company has 30 employees rather than 300 or 3,000.

Paradoxically, many startup companies and the VC firms that finance them are reluctant to spend resources on diversity-focused services and tools. Diversity in the startup workforce continues to be seen as a “nice-to-have” rather than a strategic business necessity. The comparatively low numbers of women and people of color with computer science and technical degrees (the much-lamented “pipeline”) is frequently cited as the reason it is so difficult to achieve meaningful diversity on startup teams. Technical talent is at a premium no matter what the racial or gender demographics, and for high-growth startups “butts in seats” is typically the number one motivator. The ethos is: “We don’t care what you look like, so long as you can do the job well.”

The trouble is, this attitude is bound to lead smaller companies to make very common mistakes with regard to diversity best practices, further undermining their ability to make diverse hires. Their job advertisements are likely to contain gendered language that ends up turning away otherwise qualified women applicants, and lack of procedures to interrupt unconscious bias makes it less likely that companies will hire from among the diverse candidates who do actually apply.

The most savvy entrepreneurs and investors recognize the imperative to invest in workforce diversity early on, before change of any kind becomes a massive uphill battle.

Given the proven business benefits of gender and racially diverse teams, they can’t afford not to.

by Gina Helfrich, PhD