Google, Apple Holdout On Diversity Numbers

Google and Apple are among the top technology firms but they refuse to release data about diversity in their workplaces. Host Michel Martin speaks with technology commentator Mario Armstrong about why.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we turn to another story about employment and race. We head to Silicon Valley, where several technology giants, including Apple and Google, have refused to release data about the make-up and diversity of their workforce.

Over two years, the Mercury News based in San Jose sought to learn the demographic make-up of the workforce at the 15 largest technology companies in the area. Nine agreed to allow the Labor Department to provide that data, while the other six refused. All of which begs the question: How diverse are the nations top technology firms and why dont they want the public to know?

Joining us to talk more about this is technology commentator Mario Armstrong. He hosts the technology talk program Digital Cafe at member station WYPR in Baltimore and he joins us from there now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Oh, thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, while the Mercury News was unable to get specifics from those six companies - in fact, Hewlett-Packard also fought the release of the data, but they ultimately lost that. The paper was able to report some overall trends. They reported that blacks and Latinos lost ground in Silicon Valley between 2000 and 2008. Let me just read this paragraph.

ARMSTRONG: Okay.

MARTIN: It says that of the combined workforce of 10 of the Valleys largest companies including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco, eBay and AMD while the collective workforce of those 10 companies grew by 16 percent between 1999 and 2005, an already small percentage of black workers dropped by 16 percent, while the number of Hispanic workers declined by 11 percent. By 2005, only about 2,200 of the 30,000 Silicon Valley-based workers at those 10 companies were black or Hispanic. Why do you think that might be?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I think, you know, I think the issue is theres always been this problem of pipeline. And what I mean by that is finding the talent in a diverse way. And when I say diversity, Im talking accessibility diversity, Im talking gender and ethnic diversity. And there has been a very vocal problem about how do we find the next competitive pool of talent. And where is this competitive pool of talent? And how do we find it? How do we recruit it? How do we keep them happy?

So, I think this is an industry problem. And when you look at Americas competitiveness, its going to boil down to whether or not we can compete at the highest levels of technology and innovation. So...

MARTIN: Interesting. Well, let me just - for people who are interested in these other groups that you mentioned, including the set of gender and other ethnic groups, Ill just read another graph.

ARMSTRONG: Okay.

MARTIN: The share of women at those 10 companies declined to 33 percent in 2005, from 37 percent in 1999. There was also a decline in the share of management-level jobs held by women. While the number of white computer workers also dropping after 2000, Asians were the exception. They now make up the majority of workers in computer-related occupations who live in Silicon Valley, although they hold only about one out of six of the nations computer-related jobs.

So, what do you make of it? Do you think it is a pipeline issue? Is it a networking issue? What do you think?

ARMSTRONG: I think youre hitting on a couple of problems. Number one, you definitely have the pipeline issue. But number two, bottom line, this industry hasnt become cool in a while. And what I mean by that is you dont have people really pursuing computer science and engineering degrees at the rate that we once had. We dont have the space program or the space battle, if you will, back in the day that really set off this huge curiosity and huge interest into science and tech.

You have a lot of women that also feel that the industry hasnt really been as inclusive to them as possible. And we still have to get around stereotypes. We have a lot of young girls and young boys in middle school that think computers are for nerds and nerd isnt cool, and geeky is not the right thing. And so, we have a stereotypical issue that starts at a very early age thats also a part of this problem.

MARTIN: But why would they have lost ground? These groups all had a larger presence in Silicon Valley at the beginning than they do now. Why would that be?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. You can attribute that to a couple of things. Number one, some of them are so savvy that theyre often doing their own thing, which is what I would really like to be able to find, you know, connect the dots.

Okay. So, weve seen this drop in women at these Silicon Valley companies. Well, did that mean they went to go and spin off their own firms? Or are they simply moving laterally to another position at a different company? We dont really have that answer.

Ive talked to some of these people that obviously are dealing with making these decisions or making these moves. And a lot of women as well as African-Americans and Latinos are also finding that entrepreneurship is a way for them to do their own thing once they reached a certain level of their career.

MARTIN: Lets talk about the other issue we wanted to mention, which is that some of the companies refused to give this data.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Six of them initially did, and Hewlett-Packard lost that argument, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle, and Applied Materials. Why wouldnt they want the public to know?

ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, their stated answer has been that they look at this information as something thats competitive. In other words, they dont want their competitors to know what their hiring demographic make-up is. And they feel that that could give other companies competitive advantages, even smaller companies competitive advantages.

MARTIN: How? How? I mean, its interesting because the spokesman, Chuck Malloy, a spokesperson for Intel, which contacted the Mercury News to share its employment data after learning of the FOIA request said that theres nothing to hide, in our view, and they just said it was ridiculous to argue that this is a competitive issue. Help me understand why they think it is?

ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, I dont know if I can because I actually wish that they would reveal the numbers. I think its a positive thing to reveal those numbers. I dont totally buy the argument 100 percent. I will give them a little bit of - some wiggle room here in that we are in a very competitive age. A lot of innovation has taken place and companies are nervous. Theyre paranoid, really. I think its what it comes down to, to some degree.

I dont think that gives them the excuse to not show us the diversity of make-up, because its hard for us to understand exactly what type of impact Latinos are making, women are making, African-Americans and people that are handicapped or accessibility issues, what type of contributions they are making when we cant even find out whats in those companies.

And all these companies, you know, claim to have - and most do - diversity and inclusion program. So, we know that theyre out and about and they actually care about this issue. So, its really weird that they wouldnt just offer that information, at least.

MARTIN: Its also interesting because their marketing is often very diverse. Its among the most diverse. And so, thats interesting.

Well, Mario, thank you once again.

ARMSTRONG: Well, I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mario Armstrong is a frequent contributor to NPR on technology issues. Hes also the host of Digital Cafe, a technology talk program at member station WYPR in Baltimore and he joined from there. Mario, thanks again.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

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