Intel Wants a Less White, Less Male Staff. Good Luck

Recruiting and retaining minority employees in a large company takes years, not months

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich speaks at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 6. Krzanich said in his speech that he would work to make the company more diverse.

Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg

Intel wants to be less male and white. Chief Executive Officer Brian Krzanich pledged on Tuesday to spend $300 million to boost the diversity of the workforce at Intel, which, like many other technology companies, has been criticized for employing woefully few women, blacks, and Hispanics. By 2020, Intel hopes, women and underrepresented minorities will be fully represented in its workforce.

Intel’s ambitions are admirable. The company may well be the first tech giant to publicly set aside this much money to tackle workplace diversity, even as others—including Facebook and Microsoft—have paid lip service to the topic in recent months. Yet it would be premature to consider the battle anywhere near won. Making a large company more diverse is harder than most people think.

“Diversity isn’t something you can buy quickly. It has to be an investment, and it has to take time,” says Marilyn Nagel, CEO of Watermark, a nonprofit working to increase the representation of female leaders in companies.

The first problem is one of mathematics. Intel, according to its 2013 EEO-1 (Equal Employment Opportunity) report, has more than 57,000 employees in the U.S., 57 percent of whom are white and 29 percent of whom are Asian. Just 8 percent of its employees are Hispanic; 4 percent black; 1 percent multiracial; 0.5 percent American Indian; and 0.2 percent native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Women are outnumbered 3 to 1 by men. The racial and gender disparities are even more stark at the top of the company, where white men hold 133 of 187 executive and senior management positions and white women hold an additional 23.

Intel hopes to attract more women and minorities to its ranks by funding engineering scholarships and working more closely with computer science departments at historically black colleges and other schools. But realistically, Intel will have to recruit and hire thousands of qualified software engineers and developers before it makes a dent in its percentage of minority and female employees—a venture that will take years, not months, to carry out. 

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Making things more difficult, it’s not just a matter of getting more employees of different races and genders into the building. Diversity has to stick. Hiring may spike, but if minority employees don’t feel like they’re welcome, they’ll leave. And there’s plenty of evidence showing large swaths of minorities and women have felt isolated by peers in the tech industry—whether they’ve been told not to ask for pay raises; mistaken as a security guard or administrative assistant as a black employee; or assumed, as a female developer attending an industry event, to be the girlfriend of a man.

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“People who are being recruited have to be able to say they know Intel is a company that will support people like them at the highest level,” Watermark’s Nagel says. That takes seeking out diverse candidates for senior roles and “educating the entire organization to make sure there aren’t unconscious biases, or even conscious biases, that are keeping the playing field from being level,” she says. It requires making sure employees have advocates who can stand up for them in the workplace.

Companies have failed to take diversity seriously for years. Why? Often, employees say, they don’t see their workplace putting enough skin in the game. In a Forbes survey (PDF) of 321 executives working at large multinationals, 46 percent said they felt budget issues were holding them back. Another 46 percent said middle managers weren’t carrying out diversity initiatives adequately, and 42 percent said people were more concerned with surviving the economy than improving diversity.

Abercrombie & Fitch offers a cautionary tale: After settling a $40 million lawsuit over allegedly putting minority employees in back-of-store jobs, the clothing retailer agreed in 2004 to conduct diversity training for hiring managers and to tie progress on diversity initiatives into managers’ compensation. Since then, Abercrombie has been accused of telling an employee her hijab violated the company’s dress code, wrongfully dismissing an employee with a prosthetic limb, and discriminating against plus-size consumers.

Making a company more diverse in a meaningful, lasting way requires more than a new policy here, a few polite words there. Intel should keep that in mind as it starts to transform this laudable commitment into a tangible reality.

Because of the company’s size and reach, Nagel says, substantial change will be a challenge. “It’s going to take a major cultural shift over time.”

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