Diversity in the Tech Industry: A Discussion With Facebook's Maxine Williams

It was a rare occasion when Facebook's global director of diversity visited campus on a recent Wednesday, and dozens of Puget Sound faculty, staff, and students converged to hear her discuss the issue of diversity in the tech industry.

Maxine Williams has been in her position at Facebook for more than four years, during which time the tech industry has come under serious scrutiny for its lack of diversity. According to multiple sources, less than 16 percent of this country’s 7 million tech-sector employees are black or Latino; 35 percent are women. And the statistics at Facebook aren’t much better. It’s these numbers that have the media, lobbyists, and politicians asking “why?” Maxine believes it’s an issue of access.

Daryl Auguste ’18 introduces Maxine Williams, Facebook's global director of diversity, to a gathering of students, faculty, and staff in Rasmussen Rotunda.

“Getting in the door is a real challenge for people,” Maxine said when talking about her own journey into the tech sector, which included nonprofit work, legal work, and a job as a journalist. “It’s a challenge for everybody, [but] it’s more of a challenge for people from underrepresented backgrounds [and] people from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Maxine addressed her “wide-ranging” strategies for increasing diversity at the social media company with the goal of maximizing “cognitive diversity.” 

“[Cognitive diversity] is, in part, connected to identity characteristics. If you have navigated this world as a woman, what you bring cognitively is probably going to be different than someone who has not navigated the world as a woman,” she said. “What we want is more cognitive diversity. We know that you can’t just wait for that to happen organically because inequity didn’t happen organically. It was deliberately constructed, and so to work against it you have to be deliberate, as well.”

She stressed the importance of implementing early access programs in areas where women and people of color are underrepresented, encouraging students to take AP computer science in high school, and offering access to the technology field earlier in college.

For Sofia Britto Schwartz ’18, this discussion struck a chord. Sofia is the founder and director of Puget Sound’s Beta Coders club, which was formed in 2017 with the goal of promoting diversity in coding. She and other Puget Sound computer science students tutor Lincoln High School students in computer science every day of the week and encourage them to pursue careers in technology. She pressed Maxine on the issue of early access.

Sofia Britto Schwartz ’18, founder of Puget Sound's Beta Coders club, questions Maxine Williams about Facebook's efforts to give young students access to the tech community.

“You said that it’s really important to try to tackle the issue of exposure and the belief that you can be a part of this tech community at an early stage, yet most of the programs that you were talking about were in big universities,” Sofia said. “I’m wondering if there’s any action being taken toward targeting a younger audience.”

Maxine explained that Facebook’s Tech Prep program, which is focused on parents and guardians and how they can help students get into the technology field, and Facebook Academy, which provides internships for high school students in the area around Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, are programs intended to offer early exposure. But she acknowledged that the need for these kinds of programs exceeds Facebook’s abilities.

“Fifty percent of all schools in America don’t teach computer science,” Maxine said. “It’s hard to go everywhere. It’s a whole ecosystem and you’re trying to get at it from different points.”

In the local ecosystem, Beta Coders is serving as one of those points—tackling preconceived notions about the tech industry and who can work in it before students decide what to pursue as a career. Sofia said the main problem with the tech industry and STEM, in general, is the pervasive thought that women and people of color can’t succeed in the field. She wants to combat that and ensure there is diverse representation in the industry for minoritized students.

“We have to make sure that younger generations know about those who have preceded them,” she said. “We need to teach them about Grace Hopper, who was crucial in developing the first compiler, which transformed the way in which we program, making code significantly more accessible and intuitive. They need to know about Katherine Johnson, who helped send man to the moon, and Ada Lovelace who, it can be argued, wrote the first algorithm that was explicitly intended to one day be performed by a machine. We need to make sure that we provide aspiring programmers with relatable role models.”


By Anneli Fogt
Published Jan. 29, 2018
Photos by Anneli Fogt