AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Wilkerson interview

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AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Wilkerson is trying a different approach to diversity in Silicon Valley.

Brenda Wilkerson is disappointed with Silicon Valley’s repeated diversity failures, and says time is running out.

Nearly two years ago, the former computer programmer and entrepreneur took the CEO role at AnitaB.org, a non-profit organization named after famed computer scientist Anita Borg and dedicated to advancing women in technology roles. She’s now pushing the 23-year-old organization toward a “moonshot” goal of reaching a 50/50 female-male gender split in the tech industry by the year 2025.

In the process, Wilkerson is gunning for a more aggressive approach, knocking on companies’ doors harder – and, at times, even shaming them. She hopes that with some tough love and a soft entry point, Silicon Valley can get to a place where it eventually won’t need AnitaB.org any more.

Wilkerson’s efforts come as companies like Facebook, Google and Apple struggle to attract and retain diverse talent since first releasing their diversity numbers five years go. These companies are still made up of mostly white and Asian men despite millions of dollars in investments. Year after year, annual diversity reports boast an increase in hiring underrepresented minorities and yet retention either falls or stays the same. In the last year, even Congress grilled tech executives including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the company’s spotty track record on diversity and its effect on products.

Wilkerson’s 50/50 goal, which she admits may be too ambitious for Silicon Valley, is a matter of “life or death,” she said.

Wilkerson says wanted to be a doctor until she went through medical training and learned that most pharmaceuticals and procedures were not tested on women, which could end up causing pain and dangerous side effects.

The state of tech rings eerily similar to her. “That’s an algorithm now.”

For instance, Wilkerson fears self-driving cars’ algorithms may be unable to detect people of color if the people who are testing them aren’t considering all prospective users. The U.S. alone will become “minority white” by the year 2045, according to Census figures.

She pointed to an incident involving Google’s face-tracking technology, where contractors reportedly deceived people of color into taking facial scans to train its facial detection technology for its latest Pixel smartphone. Google has since suspended the testing.

“It’s abominable,” Wilkerson said. “It’s just another example that screams for diversity because there weren’t enough people on that team who didn’t think this was wrong. When we are designing products that are going to impact a diverse population, it (diversity) shouldn’t be this ‘initiative’ – it should be the secret sauce.”

It’s not enough to hire one diversity officer

AnitaBorg’s annual report, which tracks data including racial and ethnic diversity, diverse hiring, retention, pay and policies, is widely known in the industry as the most comprehensive report and serves as a benchmark of the technical workforce. More than 70 companies participated in its 2019 report, including Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and Salesforce.

But not all companies have cooperated. In 2019, Apple, Facebook and Google declined to provide data to AnitaB.org, although they publish some diversity data on their own. Google, which is an AnitaB.org partner, declined to give a reason as to why it didn’t participate in its report, while Apple and Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Several major Silicon Valley companies also have seen a high turnover rate in roles devoted to increasing diversity. In 2019, Airbnb, Google, Dropbox, Stubhub, Twilio and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative all lost their chief diversity officers — most of whom had been in their positions for less than two years. Apple’s former chief diversity officer Denise Young left the company in 2017 after only six months. Uber’s first chief diversity officer Bernard Coleman held the top role for about a year before the company brought on a new diversity chief Bo Young Lee.

“They hire this one chief diversity officer, give them no power, and don’t include them in the rest of the processes, so it’s not going to work,” Wilkerson said. “You can hire a bunch of folks but if you don’t understand equity, you’re not going to keep them.”

AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Wilkerson speaks on a panel with Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland at the 2019 Grace Hopper conference.

Wilkerson said that for one of her presentations in staff training, she used an example of Silicon Valley executives who photoshopped women into their group photo last summer. Venture capital firms are even more “behind the curve,” Wilkerson said, adding that AnitaB.org is extending its reach to the smaller firms this time around.

Adding to the challenge, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which required organizations to report employee pay by race, ethnicity, and gender under the Obama administration, doesn’t do so anymore. That makes companies less willing to hand over their pay data, which Wilkerson said is necessary for determining workplace equity.

“Companies are feeling like change is more painful because they’re already making plenty of money,” she said. “And that’s part of the challenge that we face as an organization trying to make a change.”

Looking in the mirror

Before Wilkerson set out the organization’s new goals, she had to give her own 113-person staff a hard look, which meant identifying stagnant areas and going “back to basics,” she said.

“I remember one of the first questions I asked folks when I first came on board, was about [how] the word ‘diversity’ was getting thrown around a lot, so I said ‘define diversity,'” she said. “There was this sort of shocked silence and a lot of stuttering from people.”

Accomplished computer scientist Anita Borg founded the non-profit organization, originally known as the Institute for Women and Technology, in 1997 on the famed Xerox PARC research campus in Palo Alto, California, with the aim of increasing the representation of women in technical fields. By then, Borg had already made major strides in advancing computer operating systems and worked for several computer companies. Her work on inclusion stemmed back to as far as 1987 when she created an email list for women working in the “systems” field, which grew to span thousands of members globally.

Despite its storied history, AnitaB.org had become stale, Wilkerson said. After a year-long exam, she discovered that the organization, which is tasked with helping partners become more diverse, was not diverse itself.

“Just like the companies that we were tasked with supporting, I think we were comfortable with our lack of diversity,” she said. “We had to get uncomfortable.”

AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Wilkerson speaking with student and conference attendee.

The organization has also faced criticism around its massive annual Grace Hopper conference, the country’s largest conference for women technologists. The group allowed tech company Palantir to sponsor the event despite its work for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Critics including former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao signed an online petition asking the organization to drop Palantir, which it eventually did.

On social media, some people criticized Grace Hopper for being an “elitist” conference. Wilkerson said she received complaints that handicapped stalls didn’t have the correct signage and a complaint that the carpet was too thick for those in wheelchairs to transport themselves.

“It’s valid feedback especially if people were there for the first time,” Wilkerson said. “I feel like we got past that four-year barrier that was sort of elitist so if they’re still experiencing it in pockets, I want to know about it.”

‘Messy but important’

To reach its ambitious goals for the industry, AnitaB.org under Wilkerson is taking a more hands-on approach. That includes diving deeper into demographic data and switching up venues to have embarrassing discussions.

“What we used to say is ‘here’s your data’ and we’d have a big meeting where we’d say, ‘this paragraph means this,'” she said. “We’re now going a step deeper and saying, ‘let’s meet one-on-one and talk about what this means within your specific group and historical trends through the years.'”

Wilkerson is also strongly recommending to executives that chief diversity officers report directly to the CEO, which has been a contentious topic for tech companies who insist on placing them inside the human resources department. Reporting to HR limits diversity officers’ power because they don’t report directly to the company’s top decision-makers, Wilkerson and other diversity advocates argue.

“This is the tension, and this is the work,” she said about attempting to reprogram existing systems and mindsets. “It can be messy but it is important.”

Wilkerson also demands companies only send C-level executives to high-level meetings.

“These companies want to be involved, but sometimes who they send is a lower-level person who has no decision impact, which is often a symptom of really what’s going on in their organization,” she said. “If you want to be included in this high-level meeting, I need you to send a high-level person and sometimes that flips the switch.”

AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Wilkerson interviews Yamilée Toussaint Beach, Founder and CEO of STEM From Dance, at the organization’s 2019 Grace Hopper conference.

Wilkerson is personally leading tough discussions with executives about topics such as race relations, which she’s begun conducting in more casual, relaxed settings.

“Being able to sit down at a table over dinner, people are more willing to open up,” she said. “People are more candid–they ask questions, and we are able to garner interest in these small settings.”

She’s also begun adding technical partners who will join the dinner table to offer specific guidance on demographics, including veterans, community college students and people who identify as “non-binary”— meaning someone who does not exclusively identify as male or female.

The organization has even been cold-calling companies with diversity problems to request one-on-one meetings, and is forming a plan to track candidates after they’ve been hired to see how the job is going for them. Wilkerson said AnitaB.org has plans to offer firms more hand-holding, including an imminent pilot that tracks quarterly diversity progress.

It’s also looking externally. The organization last month announced its first acquisition under Wilkerson: Wogrammer, an online community and content platform that hosts stories of women working in tech. Wilkerson said her hope is to dissipate stereotypes by using personal testimonies and imagery.

Despite the challenges, Wilkerson is not discouraged because she believes companies who aren’t participating will eventually see the return on investment from increased diversity in other firms and industries, and quietly come around.

“I think they’re going to do their thing behind the scenes before they feel they can be seen in a leotard in front of the whole class.”

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