1bn reasons why Facebook is trying to build a diverse tech workforce

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Facebook’s head of diversity isn’t your average tech firm employee.

Although she went to Yale and then Oxford, Maxine Williams is a woman of colour who’s originally from Trinidad and Tobago.

And despite her current high-power post, Williams admits that she still faces prejudice. She was recently evicted from her new home in Geneva, having moved there with her family, because the landlord didn’t want a person that looked like her living there.

Her task at Facebook is to make sure a product that now reaches 1.09bn people every single day works for each of those individuals – and that’s all with a staff of just under 14,000 people.

Doing a bit of crude maths, that means each hire is effectively responsible for representing more than 80,000 people.

“The more complex each problem is that you need to solve, the more you need different ways of thinking,” she told an audience of young professional in London yesterday.

“We can’t do what we want to do without diversity.”

Weaker without it

Williams criticises those who claim to be “blind” to diversity. “If you see that difference, that makes them an asset,” she said.

Those who push for it, she explained, are often accused of reducing quality. “But we’re weaker at Facebook because we don’t have it. We’re more vulnerable because we don’t have it.”

She puts the gap in representation in tech roles down to lack of access and opportunity, as well as a limited number of role models that can show people what jobs are out there, rather than capability.

But you can’t just get rid of the highly skilled white mean that often occupy senior roles. “That’s why we focus on the long-term. The opportunities now are in earlier jobs.”

Depending on how you measure it, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tech jobs in countries like the US and UK that are unfilled because people do not have the right skills.

“If underrepresented groups can get those skills – all traditional forms of exclusion fall away.”

No quick fix

That’s why last year, Facebook launched Tech Prep, an online community that shows people what computer science is, whether a potential employee or a guardian, what the jobs entail and how to get there.

Williams is not all out in favour of “forcing functions”, putting rules in place to ensure diversity is on the agenda, but Facebook has, among other initiatives, now implemented a version of the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule‘.

That means any person doing the hiring is expected to interview someone from an underrepresented group.

“This means they reflect when they’re hiring, rather than just hiring what’s in front of them.”

But this clearly isn’t a problem that gets solved quickly.

Facebook is still dominated by white men, with the company’s latest diversity report from June last year showing only minor gains in the US for those from minority backgrounds. It only hired seven black people in the US from March 2014 to 2015.

And it’s this homogeneity that likely still bleeds into product decisions.

When asked about how the company’s Safety Check feature is rolled out, with critics questioning why it was first launched for the Paris attacks and not in somewhere like Beirut, Williams said: “It takes a lot of engineering time to do it all. Deciding how and where it can apply to shouldn’t be about use selecting.

“The first time we did it, we realised ‘oh, people want it’. Now we’re focused on developing clear and fair policy on this.

“It would take an awful lot of personnel to work on this all the time.”

Few companies have the brand, scale and resources of Facebook. But many will look around their tech teams, whether a company that uses tech or a company that builds it, and wonder whether they are limited because of a lack of a diversity of experience.

Given an already limited supply of tech skills, it will take some impressive effort from companies, and policymakers, to find or train enough people to help the industry build products with the whole world in mind.

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