Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Funding diversity efforts

Last year several major tech companies released data revealing their lack of workplace diversity compared with the general population. This year three of the best-known companies have committed substantial funding to increasing the numbers and success of women and underrepresented minorities in their firms and in the industry as a whole. This is a major experiment worth following by the astronomy community. Not only do the tech companies employ many people who started in astronomy, but those of us in academia can learn from what works in an industry facing similar challenges to our own.

Intel is a standout. In January they announced $300M for engineering scholarships and for support historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In June they announced the creation of a $125M venture fund to support startups led by women and minorities. As the Intel Capital VP explained, this is a wise investment: private firms led by women do better than those led by men, yet 98% of venture capital funding goes to firms led by men. These investments are nearly 1% of Intel's total revenue in 2014 ($425M of $55.9B). Although they are not annual investments, Intel aims to make an impact in its own hiring over five years, so let's call it 0.15% of total revenue per year.

While it's not exactly tithing, Intel's investment is still very impressive. In 2014, MIT's revenue was $3.1B. 0.15% of that is $4.7M. If one counts all the student financial aid and faculty startup packages for women and underrepresented minorities, then we exceed that amount. Excluding these items, I'm not sure that we do.

Google is also impressive in its funding and visibility on diversity matters. In May, they committed $150M to diversity, after announcing that they had devoted $115M to diversity initiatives in 2014, which is 0.17% of their 2014 revenue. I've been unable to find any details on their investments, so I give Intel greater credit for their transparency. On the other hand, Google leads the tech industry in unconscious bias training including development of an excellent video and workshops that are being given to most of its workforce. Academia generally lags in such efforts, although the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) has made impressive strides and offers their workshops to other organizations. Google also permits some of its employees to devote 20% of their time at work to focus on diversity projects.

The other major tech company in the news for diversity funding is Apple, which committed $50M in March to supporting HBCUs and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). This is an impressive contribution, but is less than 0.03% of Apple's 2014 revenue. Still, by focusing on the STEM pipeline, they have a chance to make big impact.

These efforts are noteworthy and are in the nation's interest, as well as the self-interest of the tech companies. Will other companies and academia step up to the plate?