On Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black school, as part of his 50-state tour. Zuckerberg responded to students’ questions on technology, politics, and every Silicon Valley company’s most glaring liability: diversity.
For college students, getting a whiff of Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial spirit must be inspiring; he’s a 32-year-old billionaire who sprung to success during those same formative years (full disclosure: I worked for Facebook’s editorial department for several months in 2015 and 2016). Yet the image of Zuckerberg in his plain grey t-shirt centered in a room full of Black students is more risible than riveting.
At Apple, 7 percent of its tech workers are Black. That’s an abysmally low number, yet compared to Microsoft’s 2.4 percent, it seems progressive. But Facebook’s staff diversity pales in comparison (pun intended) to its tech peers.
At Facebook, white employees comprise 51 percent of Facebook’s tech workers, while 43 percent are Asian, and about 1 percent are Black.
These figures have for the most part remained stagnant since the companies began releasing diversity reports semi-annually since 2014. Progress has been slow and Facebook is lagging.
Zuckerberg mentioned he’s implemented new training techniques to quell biases in his hiring processes. Still, there are absolutely no people of color holding a management position or seat on the board at Facebook. So how does an all-white board of directors solve a diversity problem?
“We do this really rigorous training for every manager at Facebook where you have to go through and understand what your unconscious biases are,” Zuckerberg explained.
That’s a start, but it takes more than few training sessions to unlearn centuries-long lessons of heavily engrained systematic oppression.
“There’s way more demand for engineers than there are engineers,” Zuckerberg told the students, adding that there were more than enough jobs in tech for underrepresented groups. That’s not entirely true. Research suggests that there actually isn’t a shortage of engineers, and when it comes to Black college graduates specifically, they make up for only 2 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce.
There’s privilege in Zuckerberg’s power; his whiteness, his maleness, and his not-so-humble upbringing that positioned him amongst the majority who look just like him and go on to rise to the ranks in tech at exceedingly higher rates.
When delving into these kinds of unconscious biases managers at Facebook may have during the hiring process, Zuckerberg said, “a lot of people who think they care about diversity actually still have a lot of these biases…it’s often people who think they’re doing the best who are doing the worst.”
Zuckerberg went on to use Facebook board member Peter Thiel as an example of how to diversify viewpoints.
This is the same Peter Thiel who co-wrote The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, an attack on affirmative action, and who pledged to contribute $1.25 million to Trump’s xenophobic, sexist, anti-immigration presidential campaign.
“I personally believe that if you want to have a company that is committed to diversity, you need to be committed to all kinds of diversity, including ideological diversity,” he said. “I think the folks who are saying we shouldn’t have someone on our board because they’re a Republican, I think that’s crazy.”
Zuckerberg also seems to be conflating ideological political differences with actually hiring skilled, underrepresented peoples. The lecture presented the task of solving corporate diversity issues as this complex riddle when the answer is clear: hire people who aren’t white men and cultivate spaces for them to rise in ranks. Then, hire more people who aren’t white men.
Having Zuckerberg act as an authority figure on diversity in front of a room full of people who are affronted with the reality of these issues is the antithesis of what pushing for diversity should mean. Whether Zuckerberg’s lecture was well-intentioned or not doesn’t matter. If he’s amplifying his own voice over that of the very marginalized people he seeks to be more inclusive of, then something’s wrong. When diversity calls, let the silenced speak. Know when to pass the mic.
One student asked Zuckerberg, “What advice would you give to us as minorities to strategically navigate the entrepreneurial world so that we can be included?”
His response: “Frankly, I think that that’s our problem to figure out.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 17, 2017