How Pinterest is taking on its diversity dilemma

Popular 'social bulletin' site, Pinterest, made a statement when it detailed plans to interview and hire more female and minority candidates in its engineering and technology departments, as well as at the executive level. Here's how — and why.

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Silicon Valley's diversity problem receives a lot of attention these days. That's one reason why Pinterest, the 5-year-old social bulletin site, published a company blog post on July 30 and laid out its plans to interview and hire more females, as well as candidates from "underrepresented ethnic groups," or minorities. The initiative could also be perceived as an attempt to balance the company's predominantly female user base with its mostly male employee base.

"In Silicon Valley, hiring is difficult because for the top talent there are many choices and companies can't be creative enough," says Estelle Metayer, founder and president of Competia, a strategic consulting firm. "By announcing they are looking for diversity, they automatically become more attractive to half of the workforce."

Pinterest's lack of diversity, and how it's trying to change

Pinterest's July blog post outlined aggressive goals for the social network in 2016. (Tracy Chou, a Pinterest engineer, published an article in 2013 detailing the tech industry's low female employment numbers that very likely helped motivate the company to publish its post.) Pinterest aims to increase hiring rates for full-time engineering roles to 30 percent female and 8 percent minorities, up from 21 percent and 1 percent in 2015. For non-engineering roles, the goal is to increase hiring rates to 12 percent for minorities in 2016, up from 7 percent this year.

Right now, Pinterest has more than 500 total employees and is becoming more balanced in terms of gender, with 58 percent male staff and 42 percent female, up slightly from 40 percent in 2014. However, diversity gaps still exist; 43 percent of employees are Asian and 49 percent are Caucasian, compared to the 1 percent of African American and 2 percent Hispanic or Latin American workers. The company's engineering department is particularly unbalanced, with 81 percent male and 19 percent female workers. The engineering team is also 66 percent Asian and 31 percent Caucasian, while less than 1 percent of the group is African American or Hispanic or Latin American.

[Related How-To: 5 tips to create high-traffic Pinterest boards ]

Pinterest plans to take action by implementing a "Rooney Rule"-type requirement where at least one minority candidate and one female candidate is interviewed for every open leadership position. (The Rooney Rule "requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs," according to Wikipedia.) The move is important because Pinterest's diversity dilemma is even worse at the executive level; the company's executive leadership is 84 percent male, 47 percent Caucasian and 42 percent Asian. Just 16 percent of its executives are female and African Americans and Latinos aren't represented at all.

Additional Pinterest diversity efforts include partnerships with more universities, and with Paradigm, a consulting firm that specializes in corporate diversity strategy, to help set up "Inclusion Labs," designed to help the company come up with more ways to increase diversity. Pinterest is also offering training to combat "unconscious bias," as well as mentorship programs to better support black software engineers.

"You don't see a lot of transparency around hiring practices and initiatives," says Kenneth Johnson, president and diversity recruiter at East Coast Executives. "The willingness to put the numbers out there in front of the world was an interesting move. They're saying, 'We understand there's a problem that exists here within our own community, and it's important enough for others to hold us accountable.'"

Culture@Pinterest, a program outlined in a recent LinkedIn post by Pinterest's Head of People, Michael DeAngelo, is another piece of the plan. The program aims to help potential new hires and current employees understand the company's six main areas of focus, as well as support its new diversity hiring initiatives.

Why Pinterest shared its diversity plans, and what it will take to succeed

In a statement sent to CIO.com, a Pinterest spokesperson described why it decided to publicly share these diversity plans:

"We're building a product that inspires everyone, and our success depends on our ability to understand the perspectives and needs of people worldwide. If we want to make meaningful changes, it's imperative that we have goals, specific programs and accountability. We're committed to building a company that's more diverse, and by extension a company that is more inclusive, creative and effective."

Johnson says that because technology companies drive change in the modern marketplace, it's crucial for them to be inclusive and have a balanced representation of genders and ethnicities. "It's extremely important for [Pinterest] to get this right in the early stages," he says.

[Related How-To: Can Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest help marketers reach millennials?]

Another reason for all the attention could be because Pinterest is trying to balance the demographics of its user base, which is mostly female, with its employee pool, which is more male. Pinterest is known mostly as a women's social network and as a place to organize related interests, such as wedding plans, hairstyles and clothes. As a result, fewer men are attracted to the site. "Pinterest has become a place for women to put their aspirations," says Competia's Metayer. "Understanding how you can better serve those [women] is difficult for men, so having diversity makes a lot of sense."

Pinterest isn't the only tech company to release employee numbers or launch diversity initiatives, but Johnson says the fact that it publicly released its goals suggests it has high-level executive support and that it is holding itself accountable. However, the company will have to remain committed for the long haul if it hopes to achieve its goals.

"When you have such important initiatives, it's important to get it right and follow through on the process and plan," Johnson says. "There's no incubation period for getting this right, but I don't think you give up on it, just keep pushing and speaking to new people. I commend what they're trying to do, I think it'll work out for them."

This story, "How Pinterest is taking on its diversity dilemma" was originally published by CIO.

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