Facebook’s Low Diversity Numbers Aren’t a “Pipeline” Problem

Rich companies need to stop blaming the education system.

The sign at the entrance to the Facebook main campus
Entrance to the Facebook main campus in Menlo Park, California, in 2012.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday Facebook released its latest diversity report, detailing the demographic breakdown of its workforce.

To no one’s surprise, the social media giant’s employees are mostly white and mostly male. White men are most represented in the company’s executive leadership (72 percent male, 3 percent black, and 3 percent Hispanic) and technical staff (81 percent male, 1 percent black, and 3 percent Hispanic).

These numbers are a bit more encouraging than last year—in 2016 Facebook’s technical workforce was 1 percent black and 17 percent female. But the company has also expanded its workforce by 43 percent in the past year, with more than 20,000 people currently working there. That offered a fantastic opportunity for the company, which ranked in more than $8 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2017 alone, to do even better.

After all, in the past couple of years, Facebook has had no shortage of problems that seem at least somewhat connected to its lack of diversity. For instance, racial justice activists have described being repeatedly put in “Facebook jail” for detailing their experiences with discrimination on the platform. In February 2016, many Facebookers were upset when people repeatedly crossed out “black lives matter” and replaced it with “all lives matter” on an office wall where people are encouraged to write. That incident led Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make an internal statement in support of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, which had already been underway for more than a year. And to be clear, that was an internal statement that leaked out to the press. It wasn’t a public post on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

“This report is further evidence that Facebook has more work to do,” says Brandi Collins, a campaign director at Color of Change, a nonprofit that advocates for racial justice issues. “In a landscape in which the Department of Justice is rolling back the protections that civil rights activists have fought for—from voting rights and affirmation action to protections against hate speech—Facebook has a moral responsibility not to replicate these trends internally or on their platform.”

As it did in 2016, the new diversity report hinted that its lack of diversity is in part due to an issue commonly referred to as the “pipeline” problem, which is the idea that there are too few underrepresented minorities and women with computer science backgrounds coming out of the education system.

But this logic, as Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, argued in the Washington Post, equates people with precious oil, as if tech workers are a scarce resource that can’t be cultivated. The truth, though, is that tech workers, most of whom are male and white, often benefit from all kinds of social and economic perks.

“If you see 10 white men on a board of 10, or an engineering staff that’s 80 percent white and male, with no faces unlike your own, you’re not building a meritocracy,” Swisher continued, arguing against the tendency to blame “unconscious bias” for Silicon Valley’s abysmal diversity numbers. “Instead, it’s a mirror-tocracy, and what’s reflecting back at you is neither pretty nor unconscious.”

To its credit, Facebook is investing money in more computer science education to underserved students. The company notes that since 2013, more than 500 students have graduated from Facebook University, an internship program to give “underrepresented students extra training and mentorship earlier in their college education,“ and says that “many [have returned] to Facebook for internships and full-time jobs.” It’s also true that only seven states nationwide have standards for computer science in K-12 education, according to recent data from the nonprofit, and only 32 states count computer science classes toward high school graduation—otherwise it’s an elective.

Still, numerous reports have shown that more underrepresented minorities with computer science degrees are entering the workforce than are actually getting hired at U.S. tech companies.

There’s another way that Facebook could put its money where its mouth is, too. The company—like others—goes to great efforts to stash billions offshore, thereby evading U.S. taxes that might be used to pay for better computer science education in public schools. Furthermore, smaller, far less wealthy tech companies are able to have more diverse representation among their employees. So it’s hard to applaud Facebook’s 1 or 2 percentage point year-over-year change in its diversity figures.

Wednesday’s diversity report does show improvement, and something is better than nothing. But Facebook has a lot of money, as do Google and Amazon and Apple and Microsoft. In fact, these are among the most valuable companies in the world. So it stands to reason that Silicon Valley could invest more, like a lot more, time and resources, into making their platforms more diverse centers of employment.