This week, Re/code hosted a major tech conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, outside of Los Angeles.
The tech news site, which Vox just acquired, packed the schedule with tech stars like Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Google chief business officer Omid Kordestani, and GoPro CEO Nick Woodman, among many others.
Throughout the varied conversations ran one common vein: What can be done about tech’s diversity problem?
Ellen Pao, who lost her gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins earlier this year, said on stage that she wished that she could offer a set of bullet points for how to make Silicon Valley more of a meritocracy, where people are rewarded for their skills without regard to their gender or appearance. She said it’s far from that today.
“Silicon Valley wants to think of itself as a tolerant place,” she said.
After watching Re/code’s reporters ask everyone about diversity on stage, we asked some attendees what they thought:
- Everyone that we asked applauded Re/code’s decision to make diversity a major talking point at the conference, though several said that they had hoped for better responses from the speakers. “It’s like they all heard one person answer and decided to say the same thing,” one VC griped.
- “We wouldn’t have been talking about this topic so much at this time last year,” one attendee mulled, indicating that it was a sign of progress that the entire tech industry is at least acknowledging how big the diversity problem is.
- The CTO of a software-as-a-service company told us that his company had a very diverse workforce — across genders, race, and sexual orientation — but fewer women in executive roles. We’ve definitely noticed, he said, but we don’t know what to do about it.
- The founder of one VC firm admitted that his fund invests in very few women-led companies, but that it’s largely because he doesn’t see many. He said that he believes the pipeline issue is the biggest cause of that, but didn’t know what his firm in particular could do to change that.
- A few people felt frustrated that on stage Spiegel tried to say that workplace diversity wasn’t any more of a problem in tech than anywhere else. “That’s just wrong,” one attendee said, adding that he gave Spiegel some leeway on his answer, considering the CEO is only 24 and still learning how to speak publically about sensitive topics. (Side note: Throughout the conference, more than a dozen people told us that they were more impressed by Spiegel than anyone else at the conference. “I really can’t believe he’s only 24” was a common refrain.)
- One woman executive said that she got a little tired of hearing all the very-similar answers. As women in tech, we primarily have to be problem solvers to get ahead, she said, and not enough solutions were suggested on stage. Although she said that sometimes, as a female exec, she feels overwhelmed by how often people want to talk about gender diversity, she would rather have the same conversations a million times than not be having them at all.
- One woman said that hearing Ellen Pao speak was the highlight of the conference to her, adding that she thought Pao came across much more poised and confident than she had in press coverage of the trial.
- A former consultant said that in his last job, he made five suggestions to keep the firm from bleeding female talent, like to allowing mothers to choose accounts with less travel or to not have to present on Mondays, so they wouldn’t spend the weekends working. Only one of his suggestions was implemented. Now, he thinks, more companies are receptive to the types of changes he had suggested, as the dialogue around diversity in tech has changed. “The more we talk about these issues, the better,” he said.
- Another attendee pointed the question back at Re/code, questioning the publication’s racial diversity and pointing out that of the roughly 27 speakers, only six were women.
- “We’ve taken a close look at our recruiting strategies,” one attendee said. As a result, their company realised that it needed to start casting a wider net when looking for new talent to increase diversity.
On stage, execs for some of the most powerful companies in tech talked about the struggle. Kordestani said that Google is putting $US150 million behind spurring better workplace diversity. Apple exec Jeff Williams, who oversees operations, said that the company is trying to mitigate the “pipeline problem” — that less women and minorities get a tech-focused education — by donating $US100 million to the White House initiative ConnectED.
Pivotal CEO Paul Maritz said that he’s taken a close look lately at subtle ways the company’s culture may be hindering the success of women and trying to change them.
“You need to know what the root problem is or you’re just putting Band-Aids on things,” he said. “I feel like we’ve been putting Band-Aids on this issue for 25 years.”
Overall, everybody at the conference was talking about diversity, which was a good thing, even if no one could posture the perfect solution. Better diversity in the tech industry isn’t something that will happen overnight, and it will take a deep commitment to tweaking company culture and recruiting to change the statistics.
“We’re all terrible at it,” Kordestani said of Google’s poor diversity statistics. “And we have to be honest about it. There’s not a silver-bullet answer here.”
Watch Re/code’s video compilation of some speakers’ answers about diversity here.