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Technology's diversity conundrum

July 29, 2014

Workplace diversity challenges again hit the front pages as a host of tech giants recently released diversity figures showing blacks and Hispanics were largely absent and women also underrepresented in Silicon Valley.

At Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, the overall U.S. workforce is 91 percent white and Asian. That figure is 89 percent at Yahoo and 88 percent at Twitter. White men dominate leadership positions. All five companies employ just three to four percent Hispanic workers and two percent black workers. Along gender lines, 60 to 70 percent are men.

What's this have to do with retail?

Although still controversial since studies around it began in the 1960's, the business case for a diverse workplace has been shown to yield numerous benefits, including better decision making and enhanced problem solving, as well as greater creativity and innovation. A different perspective within an organization, the argument goes, can challenge the status quo.

Having a workforce that mirrors the changing demographics of the global consumer market also logically improves a company's ability to better understand their desires and preferences. In the past, having a men-only sounding board was often blamed for "pink it and shrink it" approaches to making products for women. Also, by 2040, the U.S. is expected to see a "minority majority," with 42 percent of the country black or Hispanic.

The tech companies that have so far released their diversity figures all renewed commitments to diversifying their ranks in part to stay in touch and in tune with their customers around the world.

"We build products to connect the world, and this means we need a team that understands and reflects many different communities, backgrounds and cultures," Maxine Williams, Facebook's global head of diversity, said in a blog post.

Retailers already face challenges competing against the Googles of the world for young tech talent. They likewise appear to face the same challenges balancing their workforce as they build their IT teams to face an omni-channel future.

Unfortunately, the diversity challenge is not largely seen as overt discrimination, but is more systematic. Landing a tech job in Silicon Valley involves connections at universities and within technology companies that favor those with close ties to the existing workforce. Others see a bias toward hiring white and Asian males since they "fit the stereotypical image of a Silicon Valley engineer or entrepreneur," according to USA Today.

Technology companies have also stated that their primary diversity hurdle is that not enough woman and minorities are getting science and engineering degrees. The number of women pursuing degrees in computer science has declined dramatically since the 1980s.

Discussion Questions:

What is unique about the hiring challenges facing retail's IT teams? What solutions have you seen for improving diversity across industries over the years?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How important is it for retail's IT teams to encourage a diverse workforce?

Comments:

Which has more appeal to a young, technical person; a retail company, or Google, Facebook or any other Silicon Valley high tech company? The answer, unfortunately, is not retail, for a number of reasons.

The first is the personal sizzle that comes from working with one of the tech companies to other technology-minded people. Second is being on the leading edge of something rather than in an industry that is incorrectly viewed by some as dying due to e-commerce.

Finally, in those companies, IT is seen as the reason for being and is an integral part of the company rather than a department stuck in the basement or off in a corner. Peter Drucker said, "Great fortunes such as those made in retailing ... were made by reorganizing this traditional business around information." We have often said that those that gather the right data, convert it into actionable information and know how to use it, will win the retailing war. Many retailers are doing great things in developing and utilizing technology, but don't seem to get credit for it.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

In 1999 during the dot-com boom, I had a choice to move to Silicon Valley for a major search service or Atlanta—I chose Atlanta because this is a better place for me to live. No one I know wants to move to Silicon Valley, and there are deeper pockets of diverse talent in places like Texas, the DC area and New York but somehow, we are being asked to move to Silicon Valley. Why can't talent be geographically dispersed in the U.S., instead of trying to push everybody into the Bay Area?

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

The percentage spent on IT by retailers has historically spoken volumes about their ability to recruit and retain the "best talent." I have many friends and relatives who are in the Bay Area and quite frankly, when one thinks of retail, one does not associate innovation and cutting-edge technology. Having said that, I believe Walmart and Target have started up labs in the Bay Area. This will help, but quite frankly the location is not key, but the leadership within corporate management which puts IT up front and center and not as a back-office department.

The rise of e-commerce certainly has helped elevate IT, but recognizing that IT is strategic is essential in my opinion. Easier said than done!

David Lubert, Industry Principal, Bridge-x Technologies

There is much at risk in terms of dollars per hour lost for information technology's failures. The need for highly trained individuals with the ability to get emergencies handled quickly without assistance or guidance is paramount and supersedes all other likes, wants or desires. A look at the present day job market with open eyes will reveal quickly what is to be expected when entering a typical IT shop. Looking further into the resources of the various public school systems specifically elementary and high schools will show evidence of the true cause for this disparity. It is no secret that there is a wide diversity in public school budgets and the diversities can be racially and economically identified as well. Perhaps this is just strange coincidence but it nevertheless it does exist as a fact. For as long as there are more than one school system, as in, public and private, that are locally funded based on a predefined geographical location's ability to pay, there will be a disparity in education and ability that transcends into the workplace and government. But that's just one way of looking at why this still exists.

'gjarnoldjr'

Not only in retail IT but in many fields it is difficult to meet diversity needs. Not because companies don't have a desire to be diverse in the make up of their employee base, but because there is a shortage; not only of qualified candidates with a diversity background, but of qualified candidates on with the skills needed.

Where are you going to find the candidates if the candidates don't exist?

We have a skill gap and in many cases a willingness-to-work gap in the country.

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Mel Kleiman, President, Humetrics

The numbers in this article closely match the technical graduates coming out of higher education. It may seem like a stereotype, but a for profit, business needs to hire the best person for the job. That is a decision each company needs to make for the team they are hiring for.

To make a change to diversity in the workplace, it has to be done at the higher education level. They need to push more diversity so that there is a more diverse, skilled pool of people to draw from. We also need this diverse work force to be able to work together within a diverse group of people.

Is it a wise business decision to include a below average technical person within a group of highly skilled technical people because they bring a different perspective? Perhaps if what they bring to the table warrants the expense. There are obviously cases for this, but not always. You can achieve the same result by creating interdisciplinary groups within an organization.

While we are on the subject, diversity goes beyond race, gender or culture. It should include knowledge, experience, education, interests etc. No doubt there are great benefits to a diverse work force in all aspects of the word.

However, if you can't find the talent level you need in the target group you want to make a diverse team, what will you sacrifice first? The talent or the diversity? The answer is probably clear to most people. This leads to the situation we have now.

Also keep in mind, diversity brings challenges in management, and team cohesion.

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Gajendra Ratnavel, CEO, L Squared Digital Signage

It would be very interesting to see the demographic numbers for these companies broken out into IT functions and everything else (HR, marketing, customer service, finance, and so on). Even if we accept at face value that they aren't able to find diverse workers with technical backgrounds (and I'm not sure we should), it still raises the question of why they can't find more non-technical employees of diverse backgrounds. Not everybody that works for a tech company is a coder.

'RetAnalyst'

Mel Kleiman nailed it. The candidates don't exist. It hard enough to find qualified employees from the stereotypical background. Expand beyond that and it really gets hard. So hard that trying staff your company with needles from a haystack is not cost effective.

Hy Louis, Tea buyer, Wong Imports

Hire the best people for the job. Regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, or sex. Where is the survey comparing different religions in these companies? Or national origins? What about the handicapped? This is a distortion of statistics, of immense proportions. As Mark Twain said, "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics...." and this is clearly a distortion of these. Diversity takes many forms, functions, and biases...let's focus on all of these if we are going to throw stones....

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Kai Clarke, CEO, American Retail Consultants

It's not a simplistic solution. In the early '90s the Los Angeles Ad industry recognized a lack of diversity in its ranks. Advertising, like many other industries, hires entry level talent with some experience. Most candidates gain this experience through unpaid internships, but minority candidates could not afford to take unpaid internships and that left them out of "the best candidate" ring.

The venerable Jay Chiat began a fund to create an internship program to attract the best and the brightest minorities in college to the advertising business. The fund, managed by the Los Angeles Ad Club (since renamed) selected dozens of the most talented individuals from a pool of hundreds of university students to receive a semester long paid internship in advertising agencies and media companies.

The impact was felt immediately, as most of the agencies hired their talented interns, and today a lot of those interns pepper the management offices of ad agencies, media companies, and related industries.

Perhaps a similar program will work for the tech industry.

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Carlos Arámbula, Managing Partner, MarcasUSA LLC

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