Facebook's Chief Diversity Officer on fighting bias and boosting representation

Today, 'diversity' has become a cultural buzzword, a powerful marketing tool, and increasingly, a business imperative.

“If you are trying to solve simple problems, you are better off with homogeneity, because it's easier, it's simpler, it's more efficient. But it doesn't solve hard problems as well," says Maxine Williams, Global Chief Diversity Officer at Facebook, referring to research on diverse teams. "We think that everything we do at Facebook, given the people we touch, the number of countries that we're in, the types of products...it's all complex.”

Techworldsat down with Williams to discuss Facebook's latest diversity report, the company's drive for 'cognitive diversity' in every department and how Facebook is attempting to achieve it.

Facebook’s fifth annual diversity report was released in July. It revealed a mixed picture. Women now hold 22 percent of technical roles, compared to 15 percent in 2014 (while the proportion of women taking a computer science degree in the US still hovers around 18 percent). Women hold 57 percent of business and sales roles, compared to 47 percent in 2014 and 30 percent of leadership positions, up from 23 percent.

Williams says the company’s approach to diversity and inclusion is heavily data driven. They use analytics to inform an understanding of representation issues, and form strategies based on these insights.

“That creates a kind of constant circle of learning, because as things change, as new insights come about, sometimes things happen that we can't understand," says Williams. "Then, we work with research teams or data science teams, people analytics teams to dig deeper in those areas, so we can understand them more, so we can devise solutions for them.”

Their methodical approach applies to introducing new strategies too. “What we will often do is all this analysis, and based on the data, determine a particular strategy may work. We'll often roll it out - as a pilot first - and then if we are tracking the ROI on it and see traction, then we may scale it out more,” she says. This means that initiatives spend a lot of time in the incubation stage, to ensure they have the most impact.

Gender equality up while number of BAME employees stagnates

While the diversity report revealed indicators of gender equality have gradually improved, other measures were slower to change. For example, the proportion of black and LatinX people in 'technical' and 'leadership' positions languished at one percent and three percent, and two percent and three percent respectively. Although it's worth noting that there is a much greater proportion of Asian employees than the US national average - occupying 50 percent of technical positions and 21 percent of leadership positions, compared to just 5.6 percent of the population.

This can at least partly be explained by the greater educational achievement of this ethnic group, which is higher than any other racial group, as well as the greater proportion of this group undertaking STEM subjects (more than double the national average in 2014). Of course, these outcomes are in turn affected by a whole raft of additional factors such as expectations, family life, stereotyping and racism, cultural influences and so on.

With the aim of increasing representation, Facebook takes a ‘Diverse Slate’ approach to hiring, whereby for each position they’re hiring for, there must be at least one candidate from an under-represented group interviewed.

Williams clarifies that these candidates would be held to the same standard as the rest of applicants. “What you're talking about is doing a better job of finding more qualified people in those under-represented groups to allow them to compete for these jobs," she says. "And then you hold your competition bar exactly where you need it to be - but you can't hire them if you're never interviewing them.

“And what that does is it creates a muscle for doing better to source talent. And then, it invites everybody to participate. So, somebody who is not a hiring manager or a recruiter, can still participate in that by referring great candidates who are under-represented into this pipeline.”

Internal bias

Internal bias is another issue that Facebook says it takes seriously. This is the internalised mental framework we all encode as a result of cultural conditioning. It's this conditioning that is responsible for the results of an identification task experiment, showing that test subjects are more likely to judge black people as holding weapons when they are actually holding innocuous objects, with the reverse effect evident in relation to pictures of armed white people.

“Those are things that could touch every part of the system like a cancer, because it might affect how people recruit. It might affect how they manage talent. It might affect how people perform, who gets promoted, everything,” says Williams. “So we have invested deeply in a suite of learning and training programmes which are focused on that.”

Williams points to research demonstrating that when you show recruiters two of the same CV with different names, not only is the one with a ‘whiter’ sounding name more likely to be called to interview, but the recruiter will afterwards believe that they’ve seen a CV with eight years more experience. To counter phenomena such as these, the company has developed training tools that focus on helping people to understand the internal biases they may hold, as well as how to counter them.

“It's knowing what they are [biases], because people walk around - particularly if you're somebody of privilege - you walk around in this haze, thinking everything's equal for everybody, so you don't understand why,” says Williams. To counteract this, Williams stresses that solely helping employees to recognise that they hold these biases isn’t enough.

The first programme released was Managing Bias, which the company have now followed up with Managing Inclusion, aimed at managers of inclusive, diverse teams, and Be the Ally, which helps diverse team members be more supportive of one another.

Now the team is testing some deep learning, 3D, immersive courses to help train employees on structural inequality, injustice and oppression. Due to popular demand, Facebook has made these tools available to other companies too, in industries such as the airline industry, insurance industry, and oil and gas.

The company targets bias in a number of other ways too. "We do things like a tool where when you write feedback, there is language that prompts you to say, 'Are you being biased?', 'make sure you're using the same type of language to describe a woman's behaviour as you would a man's'," says Williams.

'It starts from your opportunities from birth'

What does Williams think about the diversity report? “It was a good look back to see that we were finally able to have some confidence in saying what works and what didn't work," she says.

"And that the things that we were doing were working for women, but not working as well for people of colour. We need to figure out more why. We have a lot of research projects going to figure out why is this not happening.”

Does she have any ideas? “There's a fundamental thing, which is there's been research by others to show that race is going to have a far more debilitating impact on your ability to succeed than gender is. So white women will always do better than people of any race because of racism. The question is, how does one company tackle that?”

She makes the point that when recruiting for top positions, the company tends to recruit from top level positions externally, making the point that if these people have not reached these positions in other companies, it is difficult to remedy this. Although a case could be made for training up candidates selected in-house. But there are of course, bigger structural inequalities to contend with.

"It's out there in society. It starts from your opportunities from birth. In fact, it starts from the opportunities that your parents had. It's just so hard, but we are trying to understand and do what we can to adjust what we need to adjust and own at our end to at least make it better."

To help increase the pool of candidates available to select from, Tech Prep is another programme by Facebook targeted towards those from underrepresented backgrounds. It's an online learning tool for both children and their guardians to help them understand more about a career in this area. “Those are the types of things which for the long term, what we're hoping to see is a more robust volume of underrepresented people - like you want to see that volume going up,” says Williams.

The company is also working with traditionally Black or Hispanic colleges on initiatives such as Crush Your Coding Interview, the Facebook University training programme and Engineer in Residence initiative.

Of course, employing people from representative backgrounds is only half the battle, with employees at tech companies such as Uber often complaining that the company culture is inhospitable to underrepresented groups and that they don't receive adequate support. Williams claims that this is not the case at Facebook, where she says there are structures in place to create an inclusive working environment.

"We have support for everybody and we see HR as having the responsibility to support all of the people. What that means is that you meet different people where they are, whoever they are and give them the type of support that is necessary so they can deliver on their potential," says Williams. "So we have training programmes, we have coaching, we have whole learning and development team that's looking at how do people learn. We do work with managers, to coach managers as well."

A company of Facebook’s size and reputation is increasingly held accountable for its practices. As its new ad campaign directly addresses, the company is attempting to counter the narrative of fake news, unscrupulous data collection and attention hijackery circling the company. Does the tech behemoth feel a sense of societal obligation when it comes to promoting diversity within its walls?

“I think it's connected to what our product is," says Williams. "So, we feel that we want to connect the world for good - not just for connection's sake. It's because we believe that if people are more connected, there's more understanding. There would be more closeness and less separation, less isolation, all of those things."

This story, "Facebook's Chief Diversity Officer on fighting bias and boosting representation" was originally published by Techworld.com.


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