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It's Internship Season: Is Expanding Diversity at the Lowest Level Enough?

First Posted: May 23, 2016 04:51 PM EDT
Internship, taking notes, startup, tech

Internship, taking notes, startup, tech(Photo : Startup Stock)

Silicon Valley is working to expand the reach of introductory-level work to a more diverse pool of talent. But are diversity internship initiatives the silver bullet for the tech industry's persistent homogeneity?

It's the summer, which means thousands of college students are packing up their cars and heading out west (or east) to experience what it's like to do "real" work in a business environment.

For Silicon Valley, which has been criticized for the last couple of years for the mostly white, male makeup of tech companies, internship season represents an opportunity to take steps towards a more diverse workforce. And as Fast Company recently reported, many tech companies big and small are reaching out through programs, partnerships, and initiatives to expand the diversity of their internships.

Diversity Internship Programs

Pinterest is debuting its first "Pinterest Engage Intern Program" this summer for example, specifically targeted to freshman college students from underrepresented backgrounds. Slack, meanwhile, is working with CODE2040 to place Black and Latino students in internships at the relatively small tech company. CODE2040 has placed 86 interns at Slack and partner companies for the summer internship season, which is double of last year.

Perhaps one of the oldest diversity-specific internship programs in the industry is Google's "Building Opportunities for Leadership and Development" (BOLD) program, which offers an 11-week internship and development program for students with underrepresented backgrounds.

"The program is one of the longest standing diversity internship programs in the industry," said Roya Soleimani, corporate communications director for Google, who pointed out to FastCo that BOLD launched way back in 2008. "The program has had hundreds of students, and many have joined Google as full-time employees." 

Soleimani declined to give specifics on how many BOLD interns have ended up at Google. And it's worth mentioning Google (or Alphabet), being one of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley, accepts more than 1,000 interns, cycling throughout the year through various other internship programs.

Fixing the 'Pipeline' Only the First Step

These internship programs -- along with the hundreds of millions of dollars that Silicon Valley has committed to boosting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for people from underrepresented backgrounds -- all represent the technology sector's focus on the so-called "pipeline problem."

The pipeline problem is basically the idea that there aren't enough diverse candidates trained for open technology jobs, and it's become the focus of much of the diversity discussion. It's true, of course, but should be seen in the context of the larger, and growing, problem that there aren't enough workers in the U.S. trained to take jobs in the rapidly expanding technology field, in general.

As for Silicon Valley's diversity problem, fixing the pipeline is only one solution to one problem in a broader set of issues. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently noted in a report covered by Latin Post, "The overwhelming dominance of white men in the industries and occupations associated with technology has remained."

And as the report showed, that dominance has remained unchanged especially at the upper levels of tech companies. The lack of diversity skyrockets the higher up you look in the chain of command in Silicon Valley

White Executives were represented at 83.3 percent, according to last week's EEOC report, which is a 15 percent higher rate than employment in tech at the "professional" level (like computer programmers and engineers. Latinos, meanwhile, were at represented at only 3.1 percent at the executive level, and the trends for other minorities were similar.

Work From the Bottom and Top

The corporate chain of responsibility can't go much lower than the internship level. And while expanding diversity at that level is a great start, there's obviously much that can happen between getting an internship, getting a job, and working your way up a company -- especially if you don't feel like you fit in the higher up you go.

Attrition rates for women and minorities in tech are very high must be addressed, which means grappling with the complicated structural and cultural issues behind that. But starting with diversity at the top could be the fastest way to address attrition, said founder and CEO of diversity consultancy firm Paradigm, Joelle Emerson.

"While emphasizing diversity in senior roles might take more time, the positive impact of focusing there is significant," said Emerson, adding that "it conveys to those more junior in the organization that this is a place they can grow their careers."  

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