5 Bold Steps Facebook Is Taking to Become More Diverse

February 9, 2016

As of May 31, 2015, Facebook reported that 91 percent of its US employees were either white or Asian, including 94 percent of their senior leadership. Sixty-eight percent of their workforce globally was male, including 84 percent of their tech employees and 77 percent of their senior leaders.

It is Maxine Williams’ job to change those numbers. In 2013, Facebook hired Williams to be their global director of diversity, after she helped turn New York-based White & Chase into the most diverse law firm in the United States.

Williams wants to do the same thing at Facebook, by increasing the amount of women in tech and increasing the amount of underrepresented minorities – namely blacks and Latinos – Facebook hires. Late last month, Business Insider released an in-depth interview with her and her plans going forward, and five bold strategies jumped out.

They were:

1. Facebook is looking to boost its diversity long-term by increasing the amount of minorities and women interested in technology.

Facebook is not the only tech company that has a disproportionate amount of Asian and white men in their ranks. Just about every other tech giant that has released a diversity report has a similar-looking workforce (see LinkedIn’s diversity report here).

This slant is caused by the talent pool, as far more Asian and white men are going into technology, compared to everyone else. Therefore, Williams believes that the most sustainable way for Facebook to increase their diversity long-term is to increase the amount of minorities and women who go into tech.

“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,” Williams told Business Insider. “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.”

To fix this problem, Facebook helped start two programs. For one, they teamed with McKinsey to launch TechPrep, which is an online resource built to welcome minorities to computer science. The site has portals both for students and for parents and guardians who are interested in getting their children into computer science.

“We know from research that in Latino and black communities you're less likely to have computer science taught in your school,” Williams told BI. “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.”

Secondly, Facebook started “Facebook University” three summers ago, which is essentially an internship program for freshmen and sophomores. While the program is open to all, Williams said it is specifically targeted to underrepresented minorities. Again, one of the goals of the program is to get more female and minority college students interested in computer science, so there is ultimately a larger pool to recruit from.

2. Facebook is piloting a “Rooney Rule,” where at least one minority has to be interviewed for each open position.

The National Football League has a policy entitled the “Rooney Rule” that requires at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every open NFL head coaching position. Back in June, Facebook piloted a similar concept, requiring some of its teams to interview at least one member of an underrepresented group for every open position.

Williams said Facebook is still “working on” this program and is gradually rolling it out to other teams. She added that it has been well received internally, as it encourages hiring managers and recruiters to look longer and harder to build more diverse talent pools.

“In a country like ours, where speed is prioritized, it would be easier to move faster,” Williams told Business Insider. “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.”

3. Facebook is telling their workers not to ignore race or gender, but to embrace it.

One thing Williams doesn’t want is for Facebook employees to pretend not to see race or gender. Instead, she encourages employees to see race and gender as an asset in their colleagues, not something to try to ignore.

“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’,” Williams told Business Insider. “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 neutralizing a part of a person that is an asset. I want you to see those characteristics and see them as adding value."

Williams believes this creates a more comfortable and inclusive work environment, where people “can actually by (themself) and recognize differences without feeling uncomfortable.”

4. Facebook is helping its workers remove their unconscious biases through a training program.

Early last year, Facebook rebuilt its unconscious training course and even posted it online. The training is longer and more interactive, which includes taking an “implicit association test” (you can try it here for free). The trainings look to remove unconscious biases in the workforce against minorities, women and even biases against subgroups, like working mothers.

So far, 90 percent of Facebook’s senior leaders and 50 percent of the overall workforce have taken the training, with the plan to have more people take it throughout 2016.

5. Facebook’s highest profile executives not only support Williams, they are outspoken advocates for diversity and redefined gender roles.

Facebook’s two most recognizable leaders – COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg  –have been outspoken leaders on promoting diversity and removing bias in the workforce. To Williams, that helps – a lot.

“It's very important to have leaders that actually lead and not just talk about it,” Williams told Business Insider. 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.”

Specifically, Sandberg wrote Lean In, a book encouraging women to become empowered in the workplace and the challenges they face doing so. She’s also been outspoken on men taking an equal share of housework and child raising and eliminating words that patronize women, such as “bossy.”

Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has talked publicly about the importance of a father having a hands-on approach to raising children. He even made a point to take time off for paternal leave when his daughter was born in November.

What this means to you

Williams’ strategy is geared toward fixing an industry-wide problem within tech, and certainly any tech company can adopt her specific strategies. But her overall philosophy can be adopted to any organization, regardless of industry.

Essentially, her plan is two-fold: increase the supply of talent through programs like TechPrep and make her company welcoming to all, through trainings, honest discussions, policies similar to the Rooney Rule and company leaders buying in. Those basics can be the cornerstone of any company’s diversity plan, whatever the challenge might be. 

*Image by Jason Agron Photography

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