Facebook admits it's doing a bad job hiring more black and Hispanic engineers and says the problem may go back to the company's roots

Key Points
  • Only 1 percent of Facebook's engineers and coders are black and 3 percent are Hispanic, a figure that hasn't changed in four years despite diversity efforts.
  • The company says lack of specific training as well as exposure to opportunities is what is limiting hires.
  • It is working on several initiatives, including training programs at historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, as well as partnerships with more industry groups serving underserved communities.
Dominic Lipinski/PA Images/Getty Images

As part of its mission to “bring the world closer together," Facebook is trying to increase diversity in its ranks. But while it’s made great strides in hiring more women, the company admits it has not been hiring enough black and Hispanic employees in leadership and technical positions.

“You can build something that works, that people want to use, but you can’t actually make all the right decisions if among the builders there’s not enough diversity and perspective,” Facebook's head of diversity Maxine Williams explained to CNBC.

In a new diversity report released on Thursday, Facebook revealed women now make up 36 percent of the company, up from 31 percent in 2014. The company has achieved 100 percent pay parity between men and women. A little under one-third of its leaders are women, as well as about 22 percent of its technical workers. Williams added that 30 percent of Facebook’s new software engineers are women, which is notable given that only 19 percent of all people who graduated with a degree in computer and information sciences and support services were women, according the latest statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But while black and Hispanic employees have increased from 2 to 4 percent and 4 to 5 percent over four years respectively, the numbers in technical and leadership roles are stagnant or, in some cases, decreasing. During the same time period, Facebook made no increases in the percentage of black people in technical roles — which is at a low 1 percent — nor did it increase the percentage of black leaders at the company, which is stuck at 2 percent. Hispanic employees in technical roles stayed at 3 percent, while Hispanic leaders dropped from 4 percent to 3 percent.

The lack of diversity is common in Silicon Valley tech companies. Only 2.5 percent of Google’s employees are black per its 2017 Diversity report, while 3.6 percent are Latino, each only climbing 0.1 percent since last year. Attrition rates were highest among black employees, followed by Latino employees. At Twitter, its 2017 Diversity report revealed the percentages of black and Latino employees were both 3.4 percent.

Facebook says that part of the problem is a lack of qualified black and Hispanic candidates. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2015-2016 a little less than 9 percent of people graduating with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) bachelor's degree were black. Hispanic people made up about 12 percent.

The issue becomes more acute at Facebook and other leading technology companies, which require rigorous standards to qualify for jobs. Out of the STEM field, the company is mostly interested in computer science graduates. Further narrowing the field, Facebook wants applicants who have worked on data structures and algorithms for four years during college. Most universities don’t teach the subjects at that stage in that order, Williams admitted.

But that argument is undercut by the fact that Asian people only make up around 12 percent of STEM bachelor's degree graduates — the same ratio as Hispanic people — but 50.3 percent of people in technical roles at Facebook are Asian.

Maxine Williams, Facebook
Source: U.S. Embassy, London

People of color are not in start-up circles

This suggests the problem may be rooted at the foundation of the company, Williams said. Not only are minorities not receiving the proper training, they’re simply not involved in many early-stage start-ups — including Facebook, which was started by Mark Zuckerberg and a few college friends and roommates at Harvard University only 14 years ago.

She says she tells Zuckerberg, "In your dorm room, there should have been Hispanic women who could have participated in the early days," Williams said. "Building a start-up, you look to your friends and who's willing to give up everything to go on this journey."

Being able to afford an elite university is a privilege few can manage. Tuition at Harvard is $67,580 per year, while Stanford is at $67,117. Taking an unpaid internship requires having financial support. Even taking a “cheaper” programming boot camp will set you back an average of $11,400 — as well as requiring the ability to take the course full-time, meaning students can’t maintain another job during the duration.

"People of color are not in those circles," she continued. "We come from backgrounds where we are less likely to take those kind of risks, because we don’t have a safety net. The whole start-up world is very, very low [on diversity] when you combine all those factors — who's getting the financing, who's able to raise the money. They are just building on each other. That brings us to the point where you cannot expect it to happen organically."

To increase potential candidates, Facebook is working with some historically black colleges (HBCs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HIS), including engineer-in-residence training programs at Morgan State University and California State University, Monterey Bay. It also offers an eight-week training program for engineering and business roles called Facebook University for people from underrepresented communities.

"We do need to think — and we have been working on — what is our role in giving people opportunities," Williams said.

There are partnerships with to improve outreach to computer science students and an ongoing project with the United Negro College Fund to create a course for their HBCU CS Summer Academy. Facebook is also working with groups that help people of color and women, such as Anita Borg/Grace Hopper, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

In addition, it’s trying to make its engineering application process more accessible through Crush Your Coding Interview courses, training for how to pass the practical part. It's encouraging referrals from other black and Hispanic employees, as well as training its recruiters.

“It’s not a gotcha situation,” Williams said. “We have more jobs than people for them. … We’re trying to be more transparent and open so more people can compete for these jobs.”

Facebook believes these efforts are slowly working. It’s increased the number of black women at the company by 25 times since the report began publishing four years ago, but Williams admits it’s still not that many people because it started with so few.

With the company turning 14 this year, excuses that it's a start-up going through growing pains are starting to wear thin. Still, Williams is optimistic.

“In the beginning we were a start-up, and the beginning was not that long ago,” Williams explained. “I’m hoping that long after I’m gone, 100 years from now, they will consider this whole 20-year period as a foundation problem.”

Tackling unconscious bias is the next frontier of workplace diversity: McKinsey
Tackling unconscious bias is the next frontier of workplace diversity: McKinsey