Star Interview

Diversity in Silicon Valley: ‘It's not just a poster’


Words by Dan Cave | Design by Theo Griffin

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Silicon Valley headquarters some of the world’s most iconic brands: Apple; Uber; and eBay, to name but a few. As a result, the leaders, practises and claims of those operating in this famous West Coast US location attract much media scrutiny.

Of late, this attention has been aimed at how the Valley is doing regards diversity – which is not well, according to various profiles and news reports. With deep dives into the ethnic, gender and class makeup of various Valley firms showing up less-than-flattering stats – alongside big news stories regards blow-ups over social and political viewpoints, as well as sexual harassment cases - HR Grapevine sat down for an exclusive chat with a Silicon Valley veteran to get insight into whether the Valley understands the business importance of diversity and inclusion.

Ann Sung Ruckstuhl, Chief Marketing Officer of Unisys, the three billion dollar by annual revenue IT firm, gave exclusive insight into what the Valley is doing to counteract claims it doesn’t take diversity seriously, what being an Asian heritage woman in the ‘boys club’ world of the technology industry can be like and whether it's improving at all.

 

To get people to think about gender, race, age and outside the box you kinda have to stimulate that thinking with some form of rational based business justification

Valley veteran
I meet with Ann in a central London location during the dog days of 2019’s unreasonably hot British summer. She has agreed to talk to me about her career experiences in the Valley: what hurdles she, as a Tapei-born working mother, has surmounted; what is changing about the Valley’s approach to diversity and inclusion and the drivers behind this; as well as which high-profile leaders are implementing, what she considers, the best approaches to this increasingly talked about subject.

The span of Sung Ruckstuhl’s career has given her a unique insight into how the valley’s perception of diversity and inclusion has evolved. She was a Director at eBay when infamous Silicon Valley boss Scott McNealy accused a campaign, which aimed to improve the representation of Hispanic and Black workers in Silicon Valley firms, of “terrorism”. Whilst McNealy has since softened his stance, and the attitude of the entire high-tech industry cannot be deduced from one comment – though would McNealy have made such a comment if he did not think it wouldn’t land well? – attitudes over the last two decades, at least on the surface, towards diversity have changed.

Whilst Sung Ruckstuhl, via foundational involvement in several start-ups and a stint at eBay, has spent the better part of twenty years rising up several high value firms – including a handful with revenue streams in the billions – such as Symantec, Hewlett Packard and SOASKA, before being tapped up by Unisys to help lead its corporate transformation, enterprises the world over have become much more vocal about D&I. During the same time period there has been a proliferation amongst business leaders and HR practitioners taking as read the boost D&I gives to employer brand and the business.

However, as a recent CNBC piece on Silicon Valley has suggested, whilst companies are increasingly vocal about D&I the hard stats don’t match up with the branding efforts. At the top 75 firms in Silicon Valley, according to 2017 stats by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only three per cent of employees were black. In addition, Google has been investigated by the US Department of Labor and was accused of systematically discriminating against women. Uber, at one point, haemorrhaged executives over sexual harassment and gender discrimination scandals. Whilst black representation at firms such as Facebook is still worryingly low. It caused tech journalist Julia Carrie Wong to write in 2017 that “tech leaders may have changed their tune in the intervening decades – all the top CEOs today loudly proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity and inclusion’ – but in other ways not much has changed in almost two decades.”

To get people to think about gender, race, age and outside the box you kinda have to stimulate that thinking with some form of rational based business justification

‘By myself’
I put to her whether she thinks she has had to work harder than her peers for career success. She thinks hard about her answer. “I’ve been by myself for a long time,” she tells me, referencing the fact she’s spent most of her career at a very senior level, historically unusual for a woman and an ethnic minority worker. To get there, she told me that she networked, made herself known, and threw herself into work. However, becoming CMO of a firm with a revenue stream in the billions wasn’t easy. Sung references 11PM orders of coffee (presumably to get through the sheer amount of tasks she had to do) and also, perhaps surprisingly, self-doubt. The latter an ongoing talking point in the UK press after journalist Nathalie Olah reported on the links between ‘workplace imposter syndrome’ and from a disadvantaged or minority background. It’s something Sung notes: “My husband was always kicking me in the butt and saying: ‘Yes you are [good enough]; go do it.’”

The world…is getting more and more diverse and you should try and mirror that in your little microcosm called the company

‘Old boy's club’
Whilst Sung Ruckstuhl is keen to show me that Silicon Valley is improving she admits that “for a long time it was an old boys club”. News reports and a line-up of who holds power in the valley work to corroborate this. Folk stories of the tech-firm-start-ups-turned-mega-companies-entirely-staffed-by-bolshy-white-college-dudes-who-work-hard-and-party-hard are pervasive. The Guardian has published a crib notes style tongue-in-cheek piece on essential ‘tech-bro’ (the privileged white males who work in the Valley) terms. They include commonly used lexicon like incubator, micro-dosing and evangelist. It also includes a telling definition for diversity & inclusion, which reads: “Initiatives designed to sugarcoat Silicon Valley’s systematic failure to hire, promote and retain African American and Latinx employees.”

In addition, Recode, a tech news website which closely covers the valley, has previously covered ‘frat boy-style’ behaviour at some of the biggest firms, such as Uber. According to one report, the app-based ride hail firm’s scandal-ridden founder Travis Kalanick sent out rules regards sexual intercourse, vomiting and drinking for an infamous 2013 company event. Even the most cursory of internet searches shows that the founders of some of the area’s most prominent companies all went to well-connected, very good or expensive schools. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, went to the same very good high school with some very famous alumni. Mark Zuckerberg went to an excellent private school whilst one of the founders of Google, Larry Page, was the progeny of a Professor of Computer Science.

Because of this intense focus, Sung Ruckstuhl believes that it is incumbent on the valley to showcase best practise when it comes to diversity and inclusion. “I think it is incumbent upon Silicon Valley,” she adds. “When you are a leader there are responsibilities that come with that. So if you really want to lead, and if you really want to make a difference, you have to step back and think a lot broader for sure.

“The valley has responsibility in this area [D&I], to be able to admit when things are not going well but also to be able to teach the rest of the world when things are rightsized and done well.”

The world…is getting more and more diverse and you should try and mirror that in your little microcosm called the company

Uber Logo

Uber
How does one solve a problem like Uber? Sexual harassment, company culture and diversity was apparently so bad at the firm that the compensation packages of several senior executives is now linked to diversity targets. Previously, the firm was embroiled in sexual harassment scandals, where HR was accused of not taking the complaints of female engineers seriously, and HR have come out on the record about the improvements they need to make. However, white men still makeup the biggest proportion of staff at the firm.

Google Logo

Google
The search engine giant made headlines globally when, in 2017, an engineer wrote a memo arguing that biological differences made for a dearth of female engineers. There were also shocking reports about the number of employees fired over sexual harassment claims. According to figures on company diversity, Google has a greater percentage of white employees than other big Silicon Valley players and has a global workforce which is made up of circa 70% men.

Tesla Logo

Tesla
A company described as “a trash fire” by ex-Reddit Ellen Pao, the vehicle manufacturer has been investigated by the New York Times for patterns of racism and discrimination. Complaints about Nazi Swastikas being found in a factory bathroom and an effigy of a black employee being made sit alongside accusations that African American employees are assigned more menial tasks than white colleagues.

 

‘Meritocratic? Nothing ever is’
Whilst Sung Ruckstuhl believes the Valley is improving regards D&I, when I asked if she thought if the industry was meritocratic she told me: “Of course not – nothing ever is.” Stats and research seemingly back this up yet also highlight that unmeritocratic people practises are not an issue especial to the valley. Investigative journalist James Bloodworth, who has reported on the working practises of both Uber and Amazon, has written a book which lays out arguments that suggest true meritocracy doesn’t exist. Furthermore, a wide range of UK industries have been accused of tokenism and indifference when it comes to diversity. In the US top-line stats on high prestige careers such as law, the arts and business, suggest it’s not just Silicon Valley who is struggling with giving equal chances to all genders, classes and ethnic minorities.

In part, Sung Ruckstuhl believes this due to the fact that often people hire those that they perceive to be similar to them. In 2018 people skills expert Kimberley Giles noted this phenomenon when she wrote in Forbes that “[people] subconsciously look for points of similarity in everyone [they] meet because similarities make [them]… feel safer.” Giles’ thinking means in industries such the US legal profession – which 2015 census bureau data showed as more than 80% white – are likely to beget more white hires. However, recently there are more moves to improve diverse hiring as there is a lot of research to suggest it’s a benefit to the bottom line. “It’s not pity. It’s not political correctness, it’s actually good business,” Sung Ruckstuhl adds. She believes it has to be a concerted effort though, as it won’t happen naturally. “To get people to think about gender, race, age and outside the box you kinda have to stimulate that thinking with some form of rational based business justification.”

Sung Ruckstuhl’s HR thinking
In fact, the way that Sung Ruckstuhl positions diversity is exactly the same as many forward-thinking HR practitioners do: as one potential fix for the core issue: how to get better people to drive better business outcomes. “We [the valley] are desperate for talent,” she explains; the subtext being that being open to diversity would improve a business’ chances of getting the best person for an open role. She adds: “We have so many jobs unfilled. To attract the workforce…people are paying more attention to what used to be an adjacent thing [diversity]. This is no longer adjacent, it is core.”

According to Sung Ruckstuhl, being diverse in itself would better improve an organisation’s chances of landing this badly needed new talent – especially that coming from younger generations. She explains: “Young people tend to be more enlightened. It’s not just desperation for a job just for pay. They ask: ‘Am I working for an organisation that is doing something good for this world?’ Whether it’s diversity, charity whatever the cause – social responsibility is the key for many people.” This diversity, she adds, has obvious outcomes for the business too. For one, she believes diversity of workforce improves interactions with the customers. “It’s important to reflect the consumer base,” she adds. “The world…is getting more and more diverse and you should try and mirror that in your little microcosm called the company.”

Is Silicon Valley getting more diverse?
If the Valley broadly understands the business benefits of diversity, is it changing tack? Whilst being transparent about the racial makeup of the employee base, something many Silicon Valley firms are doing, is a positive trend the figures aren’t yet great. Last year, a study by the National Urban League found that only three per cent of workers at Uber, Google, Twitter and Facebook identified as black. A TechCrunch study on diversity in the Valley concluded that the “numbers have barely shifted over the years.”

Whilst the Valley is keen to promote its diversity and inclusion initiatives – with heads of D&I being employed; and Uber even hiring a new CEO after serious allegations at the firm – several Silicon Valley veterans say that it’s not enough and problems still exist. Sung Ruckstuhl adds: “A few people do a pretty good job talking about it but we need more.”

Ann Sung Ruckstuhl's tips for success

Network – “Network a lot: you’d be surprised how many people are in the same boat.”

Get a mentor – “There’s a few people I’m on speed dial with and I would say what do you think of this, what do think of that and they would be so candid, they know me better than I do. They see me do well, they see me not do well.”

Take risks – “I do throw myself into [any] situation wherever I am, and I have an opinion and I believe I have value to add and I’m not shy about conveying that.”

Forgive yourself – “Forgive yourself if you’re not the CEO yet. Take your time. Life is a sequence of steps and make sure you have the infrastructure.”

‘Kind leaders and hard targets’
Yet, Sung Ruckstuhl claims it’s improving, not least because of strong leadership and hard targets. She notes Slack as one firm who is doing things well regards diversity. Zoom too. She also states that Salesforce, one of California’s most famous firms and regularly ranked as one of the best places to work, under the guidance of CEO Marc Benioff, has aggressive targets to improve pay inequity and also the representation of lots of different minority groups. “We have next generational leaders who are living and embodying the messages and the core beliefs that they have which is important,” she adds. “If you look at the leadership doing well these days… it’s kinder, it’s more open, it’s more transparent.”

Where Sung Ruckstuhl works, there are hard targets for female and ethnic minority hires that filter down to all managers at the company – driven by an understanding of the business benefit this brings. “Year-on-year that’s on my KPI,” she explains, “it shows up on my directs, and then their directs and that’s how we think through. What I think the most is having an honest conversation of why we’re doing this and we look at business outcomes. We check case studies out there from Harvard from McKinsey and it’s a very thoughtful decision to make.” Additionally, Unisys’ CMO believes that data has it’s role to play. “Because we’re collecting data on everything now,” she says, “you can correlate all of those things – performance, employee satisfaction, and measured performance on engagement, actually company performance – over the same norm period of time and see how [diversity] goes, to see if you’re going in the right direction.”

If you look at the leadership doing well these days… it’s kinder, it’s more open, it’s more transparent

Can the diversity issue be fixed?
The subtext to a lot of what Sung Ruckstuhl explains to me, in our hour together, is that diversity has to improve and become a core part of everyone’s thinking and not just an empty branding exercise. ”It’s not a poster you make. It’s not an HR policy that you make,” she explains. As Sung Ruckstuhl sees it because the Valley is scrutinised – and because it is no longer the sole area that has a high tech centre – it has to get better for the sake of survival. She does believe it’s improving though. “We’re all changing for the better. They valley has a huge responsibility and we have a few leaders who are squarely leading the pack,” she tells me.

She also believes it’s getting easier. Not least because leaders understand that the fallacy of the strong man is exactly that but also because networks are springing up for employees to support each, organisations are flatter and less hierarchical, and leaders, such as herself, are willing to share their experiences and mentor the younger generations. “Modelling is so important. For someone like me who has been around the block and learnt a few things: it’s my obligation to teach back.”

This means she is encouraged by all of the changes she sees – with people are more willing to challenge things they don’t think are right and that people are more open to different patterns of working. “The days of because ‘I said so’ and ‘I’m privileged’ and ‘I went to the best school’ and ‘I did the best everything’ are largely gone. And for someone to think they earned the right to be able to do that: no.” The hard stats show that there is a long way to go. Therefore, I put to Sung Ruckstuhl, an ask on just what attitude the Valley needs to shake some negative practices and a lot of negative press. “Diversity is not a checkbox, it’s a lifestyle,” she tells me. “We need more studies but it’s doable, it really is and it’s getting easier.”

If you look at the leadership doing well these days… it’s kinder, it’s more open, it’s more transparent

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