Is Silicon Valley’s meritocracy ethos anti-diversity?

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Let’s face it. Tech has a huge diversity problem. Unless you are willing to believe that minorities are fundamentally ill equipped or incompetent to work in tech,  there is a problem. When the US population of blacks is13.2% and Blacks make up between 2–3% of the employees at Google, Facebook, Apple, and the like — there is a problem.


There are many competing theories as to why diversity has been so hard to achieve in Silicon Valley. For convenience sake, let’s examine the two most frequently mentioned theories (based on my non-scientific experience) for why tech companies are not diverse: 1) The Pipeline and 2) Meritocracy.

The pipeline theory is a simple one. It goes like this: every company in Silicon Valley would LOVE to hire more qualified women, blacks, Latinos and other minorities. The problem is that there aren’t many. The problem isn’t the people doing the hiring or the process; it’s the pipeline of talent or lack thereof.

This is what I call the Google argument. Google, to their credit, released its diversity report last year, and pointed to the pipeline of talent as the major barrier for why their company looks the way it does. While this is true to a certain extent, it ignores a critical fact: that studies have shown that qualified minorities are hired at an alarmingly lower rates than less qualified applicants or counterparts. So while there may indeed be less minorities looking to work in tech, even the ones who are interested and qualified, are not getting hired at a rate proportional to their counterparts or less qualified candidates.

Tech equals Meritocracy. The reason more minorities aren’t in tech is because they are not meritorious, right? Wrong. When tech companies hire, they hire from within. Meaning they look to their employees for referrals. Tech companies tend to hire candidates that look like them, were educated in the same institutions, and that care about the same issues. Max Levchin even goes as far as to argue that early on in a company, where success isn’t guaranteed, diversity is not what you need, but homogeneity is.

While homogeneity may sometimes be advisable in the beginning, companies who start off hiring people who fit a certain archetype a) will continue doing so, and likely never get around to hiring diverse candidates and b) alienate the diverse candidates they do hire — and ultimately force them to leave. See: Tinder. Also, the meritocracy theory has one major underlying assumption, and that is, “if you can’t break into tech then you are not deserving.”

Many VCs are famous for saying they refuse to meet with anyone who does not come to them through a referral. But if most companies hire up to 39.9% of their candidates from referrals, it’s really not about your merit but about your network. According to the Washington Post, non-minorities have zero to one minority friend, so how do you break into an industry that you don’t have access to, regardless of your merit?


As much as we would love there to be, there is no Gordian-knot-approach to fixing the diversity issues in tech. Achieving diversity takes a sustained and deliberate approach, but making progress while hard is possible. We’ve spent enough time talking about the problem. What are some solutions?

Education. Since Google believes that the lack of diversity in tech is primarily attributable to the weak pipeline, early exposure through education is one of their solutions. Google has started investing heavily in STEM education at all education levels. This investment is totally necessary, and is a great start to helping expose more minorities to tech.


At CES last month, Intel stole the show with their $300M investment in diversity. Many lauded it as a great but opportunistic PR move that stems from their major flub with Gamergate. For me, either way you split it, $300M is a serious investment and sign of serious commitment.

Code 2040, Women who code, and Mission bits are three great programs I can think of, off the top of my head, that are working assiduously to expose more minorities to tech, and I’m sure can use the investment.


Be aware of implicit/unconscious bias in hiring. Research done by Marianne Bertrand at the University of Chicago has shown that the name of a candidate and where they live, both things prominently featured on a resume, skew hiring managers perception of a candidate.

A study of craigslist sellers done last year found that sellers with pictures of their product and a black hand holding the product received fewer responses, and when they received responses they were of lesser value.


This unconscious bias dynamic is everywhere, perhaps, most famously a feature of the NY Orchestra in the 90s. The orchestra was all white male. The heads of the orchestra recognized that, and what happened next was truly amazing.

By using blind hiring techniques the orchestra became much more diverse. Over 40% of the orchestra is now female. In fact, it is the most diverse orchestra in the world, and still one of the most accomplished in the world. If the NY orchestra can do it in the 90s, then tech companies can do it today. Gild is working on an algorithm that attempts to solve this problem, and others should as well.


Expand the recruiting pool. In Silicon Valley, there is a talent war. Exhibit A is the recent lawsuit against Google, adobe, et al. that alleges these companies rigged the hiring landscape so that other tech companies could not compete with them for talent.

While talent is everything in tech, I would argue that not all great talent looks the same, and hails from Stanford, Harvard or MIT, etc. Recruiters and hiring departments that systemically only target candidate from these schools are doing so to their own detriment for many reasons.


Broadening the pool of prospective candidates to more state schools, women’s colleges and HBCs, can help companies find more diverse talent, and still remain competitive in the talent war.

End the false meritocracy shtick. Working hard does not always equate to success. A lot of the time it does, hell much of the time it does. However, in many industries, including tech, where minorities are not exposed to opportunities or even run in the right circles to showcase their talents, this may not be the case. And even when minorities run in the right circles and are deserving of a position, many of the aforementioned extraneous factors preclude them from being hired. So let’s stop perpetuating the meritocracy myth.


I acknowledge that there is no panacea for creating a more diverse tech community. It’s a complicated problem. It took many years to create, and will likely take equally as many if not more years to unravel. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I claim I do. I can only speak to my experiences as a minority in tech.

Originally published at Medium

Sales Strategy at Techcrunch and Engadget. Tech. Sports.