By now, you've probably caught wind of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's commencement speech to this year's graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Much of her speech, as you would've guessed, was about the role of technology in society, a topic fitting for a school known for its tech prowess. But she also used her platform to draw attention to broader topics, including tensions tied to race and gender and, of course, her company's ongoing privacy scandals.

But my favorite quote from the speech came after she warned MIT grads that the most difficult problems and the greatest opportunities they'll face are not technical or about technology alone. They are human. In other words, it's about people.

Sandberg's leadership advice

Sandberg did not mince words. She stressed the importance of diversity in people to create technology to change the world. Here's Sandberg:

There are still skeptics out there when it comes to the value of diversity. They dismiss it as something we do to feel better, not to be better. They are wrong. We cannot build technology for equality and democracy unless we have and we harness diversity in its creation.

She told graduates that they have an obligation to ensure technology is used for the greater good and to uphold the right values, and the best way to do that is "to have more people in the room with different voices and different views."

Sandberg says there are more people with more diverse backgrounds working in technology than ever before, but much of the tech industry is lagging behind, as evidenced by Google's diversity efforts coming under fire

"Even the newest technology can contain the oldest prejudices, and our lack of diversity is at the root of some of the things we fail to see and prevent," said Sandberg.

She added, "Continue to engage with people outside your discipline, your gender, your race. Talk with people who grew up in different places, who believe different things, who live and worship differently than you do. Talk with them, listen to them, get their perspectives as you have done here and encourage them to work in and with technology too."

Science backs up the need for more diversity

A study run by McKinsey examined 180 companies across four countries over a period of two years and found that diverse boards (defined as those including women and foreign nationals) perform better -- generating 53 percent higher returns on equity, on average, than the companies in the bottom diversity quartile.

Another study that looked at the gender composition of management teams in S&P 1500 companies found that women in top management positions were associated with "an increase of US$42 million in firm value."

One joint MIT-George Washington University study involving more than 60 offices in the U.S. and abroad found that mixed-gender businesses could increase revenue by roughly 41 percent. 

A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

Finally, one study of 177 U.S. banks found that in banks with an innovation-focused business strategy, a racially diverse workforce was related to enhanced financial performance.

Facebook's own diversity efforts

How's Facebook faring? Lets acknowledge that Facebook, like much of Silicon Valley, is far from perfect. But it's headed in the right direction, albeit slowly.

In last year's diversity report, women now represent 35 percent of the social network's overall workforce, up from 33 percent in 2016. While the small gains are optimistic, in tech positions, women have yet to crack one-fifth: 19 percent of these roles are held by female employees (up from 17 percent in 2016).

Black and Latinx groups remain largely underrepresented. The report shows a 1 percent increase for both groups, from 2 percent to 3 percent for blacks, and 4 percent to 5 percent for Latinx, respectively.

"We aren't where we'd like to be, but we're encouraged that over the past year, representation for people from underrepresented groups at Facebook has increased," wrote Facebook's global director of diversity, Maxine Williams, in a post accompanying the report.

We should probably be encouraged as well, but is Facebook doing enough? Leave me a comment.

Published on: Jun 15, 2018
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