When Facebook hired Maxine Williams as its global director of diversity in 2013, the social media giant was approaching its tenth birthday.
It was time for a more robust plan to achieve a workforce that better represented its hundreds of millions of users around the world and could thus serve them better. Like the rest of Silicon Valley, it was no secret that Facebook’s staff was overwhelmingly white and male.
Williams was uniquely positioned to take the challenge. In her previous role, she took New York law firm White & Case from the 47th most diverse large firm in the US to No. 1.
Under Williams, Facebook released its annual diversity numbers for the first time in the summer of 2014. Similar to Google, Facebook’s staff was 69% male and 53% white, and 2015’s numbers showed no material difference, inspiring critics to call Facebook’s report “pathetic” and “dismal.”
We recently spoke with Williams about Facebook’s new approach to diversity and what she is doing to change the way Facebook looks and thinks. She said that the company is doing all that is legally possible and dedicating more resources than ever to meet the challenges at hand.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Business Insider: What have you focused on in the past two years as head of diversity?
Maxine Williams: At the beginning, it was really looking around and trying to figure out what my team and I were solving for, and then we hired the human resources to drive change. We dedicated people to developing recruiting strategies, to supporting internal communities and, importantly, to creating pipeline initiatives.
Because when we looked at the numbers, you could see that if the US was set on the way it was, we would never be able to fill the jobs that we needed filling at Facebook, regardless of race, gender, or background. There just wasn’t enough talent for the demand. And so we knew that we had to do our part and invest in a long-term pool to try to make it more diverse.
BI: Facebook overhauled its unconscious bias training course in February 2015 and posted an hour-long, public version of it online in July. What does it entail?
MW: The live one is longer and more interactive, but both contain the same elements. In the beginning, we ask for people to take an implicit association test (the IAT), which tests biases on a number of different demographic categories by measuring one’s impulsive associations [Harvard makes them available online]. We discuss the results of that and work through case studies and hypothetical situations that show unconscious biases at work. We have employees discuss these in groups.
It’s best to start by having individuals reach a personal understanding of their possible biases and then have them work together through real-world examples.
BI: How many of Facebook’s roughly 12,000 employees have taken the training course?
MW: More than 90% of our senior leaders and more than 50% of our entire workforce have taken it. It has been a priority for us to deliver this and to do it globally, as well. The learning and development team has adapted it to each of the 30 countries in which we have offices.
BI: Facebook is unique in the Valley in the sense that its COO, Sheryl Sandberg, and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have both been vocal and highly visible around progressive corporate initiatives, including those that touch on touchy topics. What’s the effect of that?
MW: I would say that employees feel pride and they feel support and they get comfort. It’s very important to have leaders that actually lead and not just talk about it. Actually lead.
You do it by being true, being honest when you say it. So yes Sheryl writes the bestselling book “Lean In,” but it doesn’t stop there. We speak about those issues repeatedly at Facebook. We lead by being open, being honest.
When Mark wrote a post on his Facebook page that talked about his wife having miscarriages before her healthy pregnancy, that says, “You can be vulnerable. That is human.” And then when he was public about taking paternity leave and posted a photo of him about him changing his daughter Max’s diaper, it said something to people. So we don’t do it once.
We encourage people to have frank conversations about difficult topics all the time. We say, “Just because you don’t know exactly what to say, the worst thing is being paralysed by your discomfort and we don’t get through it.” So we invite the same openness that we want to see in the world and we spend a lot of time fostering internally as well.
BI: How do you measure progress in terms of making Facebook more inclusive?
MW: We look at our internal surveys: Is the hiring rate increasing? Is the head count increasing? Are employees indicating that they feel connected and that they feel a sense of belonging?
Every Monday, when we get a new class of hires, I say to them, “I don’t want you to come in here and think that you need to use ‘blind’ as a suffix. That you need to describe people as ‘just my colleagues’ or say things like, ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see gender. I’m colorblind. Sexual-orientation blind.’ In doing so you’re neutralising a part of a person that is an asset. I want you to see those characteristics and see them as adding value.”
And when you start people off that way, they go, “Oh! So this is a different place. I can actually be myself and recognise differences without feeling uncomfortable.”
Because that discomfort always comes in if you are worried that maybe everyone’s not really valued or equal so that’s why you have to neutralise differences. We don’t want you to be the same, because that’s not going to help us be the company we want to be.
We need more differences to be the company we want to be — a very complex, multicultural, heterogeneous one.
Studies show that diverse organisations actually perform better than homogeneous ones, and so by changing the way we approach diversity we are making ourselves a more competitive company.
BI: Google released diversity numbers in 2014. How did you and your team react to this?
MW: I came from the law firm world, and it’s standard to release your numbers and get ranked according to them. So I came here a few months before the Google release, and we already had started working on our own release because the issue of transparency was one that my team and I were very committed to as soon as I joined. We were still doing our analysis when Google released its report, and so I wouldn’t say that we were influenced by it.
The time had come in this industry to meet that level of transparency.
BI: Observers were quick to deem Facebook’s diversity numbers from the past couple years as embarrassing. What’s your response to that?
MW: The more open we are about the conversation, and the more people believe that we actually want to change it, the more I think conversations around this will be positive.
What I want to see are conversations where the tech world is talking about how we can do this together in more countries.
I think it was an initial shock for people to see the numbers. But as people learn more about the challenges — like when I learned that a mere 1% of children in New York City public schools take computer science classes — it starts to put things in a different perspective. You start to realise how big this is and how hard it is to move in a new direction.
The more we can unite in sharing the information the better it will be for all of us. So if everyone in the country will focus on the root cause of these problems, we can get better results. We can find ways to get more people interested in the tech jobs that will otherwise be left unfilled by 2020.
BI: This is where TechPrep comes in?
MW: Yes. In partnership with McKinsey we launched TechPrep in October. It’s an online resource hub that welcomes underrepresented minorities to computer science.
We know from research that in Latino and black communities you’re less likely to have computer science taught in your school. So therefore you’re less likely to be the people graduating with degrees and with the skills we need to hire. We’re using TechPrep to address this.
There’s a video on the site that illustrates TechPrep’s mission perfectly, and makes me tear up every time I see it. It’s about a woman named Karen, a black mother of four in Georgia who had few resources but decided after a job working for a startup that she would teach her kids about technology. She went out of her way to find online resources for her and her children so that they could learn to code. In December, he three oldest kids won first place in the 2015 Innovating Justice Challenge international competition for their app. Her older daughter is now studying computer science at Stanford, and I keep in touch with her.
These are the type of stories I want to see more of in our communities. So I think the more people understand how deep this issue is, the less they will spend their time criticising and the more they will spend our time collectively solving.
BI: So it’s about showing these kids role models who look like them rather than just filling some tech stereotype?
MW: Yes, exactly. Very concrete too. Not just here’s a guy who does something and looks like me, but here’s what he does. This is what computer science is. This is what you would earn with a degree in computer science. This is how much time it would take you to get a degree. These were all things that people did not have enough information about when we did the research.
The other important thing is the site is in Spanish and English, so that it is available to Latinos more comfortable speaking Spanish.
When doing our research, we noticed there was a significant amount of resources that focused on girls but not enough resources that spoke directly to blacks and Latinos.
Our surveys told us that a top answer as to why someone pursued a career in technology was due to a parent’s influence, but that parents and guardians of black and Latino children in particular were least likely to know how to help their child pursue a tech career.
BI: Does Facebook University develop talent among minorities with the intention of recruiting them to Facebook?
MW: Yes. The program is open to everyone, but we make it clear that we want to attract these groups because too often we were going up against hundreds of years of inequity. And too often if you have been in that outsider group you assume that Silicon Valley doesn’t include me and doesn’t want me.
So that’s why we’re very direct in having Facebook University (FBU) be a special internship at our Menlo Park headquarters that says very clearly to underrepresented groups that we have a gap that we want them to fill.
This started three summers ago.
Our regular internship is open to rising college juniors and older students, but we saw that for underrepresented races and for women that you have to get to them earlier because of disparities and imbalances. Both groups have significantly higher dropout rates from computer science courses after freshman year than white males do. So we created this internship for rising sophomores with the hope of keeping them in the game.
To be accepted to FBU, you have to have an interest in computer science, have good grades, and know a popular programming language. This past summer, we more than quadrupled the number of FBU internships from our pilot program, and we also introduced FBU for business, to go beyond engineering.
We stay in touch with students after the program, and many have come back for full internships. In an ideal world all of them would come work for us after graduation. FBU is going to be a huge investment for us.
BI: In June, Facebook piloted a new hiring program similar to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” in which at least one member of an underrepresented group is considered in every hiring decision for an open position. Did that move forward?
MW: We’re still working with it, and we’re rolling it out to different teams all the time.
It’s been very well received, and there are strong lead indicators of its effectiveness. Essentially, what something we call a diversity-based approach does is build a muscle in people. It builds the habit of looking longer, looking harder.
In a country like ours, where speed is prioritised, it would be easier to move faster. But by looking for people who may be harder to find, we are creating a different way of operating, which can make a difference. This affects even the teams not in the pilot program, because they now see this habit forming all around them and are starting to think differently. We are changing the way people operate.
BI: Biggest accomplishment so far at Facebook?
MW: My greatest accomplishment at Facebook is moving us beyond the limitations that discomfort or fear cause. We’ve really been able to double down on our promise of openness by creating an environment where we can speak more openly about topics that those in the majority in particular often consider sensitive, such as race or ethnicity. Now we experience more honest, unguarded, but respectful discussion of what it is like to be the minority in a space and how we can address the issues that arise in that context. So we are moving ahead in a more productive and authentic way.
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