Google's decision to lay bare its lack of diversity ramps up the pressure on other Silicon Valley companies to increase the number of women and minorities among technology workers.
Women make up 30 per cent of employees and 91 per cent of staff are either white or Asian, the Mountain View, California-based company disclosed in a blog post on May 28.
The dearth of female and minority engineers, startup founders and business leaders has long been a sore point for female executives including Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg as well as activists such as Jesse Jackson. Google's disclosure follows increasing calls from investors and activists for companies in the technology hub - which prides itself on being liberal and culturally inclusive - to embrace diversity.
"Silicon Valley has been confused on the idea of meritocracy," Mitch Kapor, the former chief executive officer of Lotus Development, said in an interview.
He's organising a conference on diversity with Google later this year. "Aspirationally, it's a meritocracy, but in practice it really isn't."
Apple, facing behind-the-scenes pressure from some shareholders to add more female directors and executives, included language to a board committee charter in November vowing to diversify the group, which has one female director.
Facebook and Twitter were criticised leading up to their initial public offerings for not having any female directors. Sandberg and Susan Desmond-Hellmann are now on Facebook's board, and the other six members are white males. Twitter has one woman, Marjorie Scardino, on its board and the remaining seven are white males. Of the 10 people on Google's board, three are women and one is an India-born minority.
Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations, wrote in the post that the search provider was wrong to hold back on publishing numbers on the diversity of its workforce. He highlighted the lack of qualified minority and female technology experts, citing a US Department of Education study that found women earn just 18 per cent of computer-science degrees in the United States and that blacks and Hispanics collect fewer than 5 per cent of computer-science degrees.
"Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it's hard to address these kinds of challenges if you're not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts," Bock wrote.
"I applaud Google for its transparency, but they really can't blame the pipeline," Elissa Shevinsky, CEO of photo-sharing startup Glimpse Labs, said in an interview. "People are bringing in people they know, who look similar to them, and you see this proliferation of culture."
Women make up 30 per cent of Google employees the company disclosed in a blog post on May 28. Photo / AP
Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder of CloudFlare, a San Francisco startup that protects websites from denial-of-service hacking attacks, said schools need to step up their efforts to teach computer science and connect graduates with other alumni.
"Bringing more working professionals into schools to understand what you do is really important, having more people from the tech industry is really important," said Zatlyn, who previously worked at Google and Toshiba. "Those connections can really be those 'a-ha' moments for students."
The lack of diversity among Google's 50,000 employees isn't unusual. Last year, 74 per cent of US workers in computer and mathematical occupations were men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In software development, a fifth of the jobs were held by women.
"This is a challenge to Silicon Valley," said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet ethics program at Santa Clara University. "While this was an important step forward, it doesn't mean that Google should just sit back now."
Jackson, representing his Rainbow PUSH Coalition, has been showing up at shareholder meetings at Google, Facebook and other technology companies to push for more diversity. Jackson said he's issuing letters to 25 top technology companies including Apple, Cisco Systems, Intel, Yahoo and Microsoft to follow Google's lead and disclose more employment figures.
"For so long they've been hiding that data, and it's time it be made public," Jackson said in an interview.
Claudia Chan, founder of the S.H.E. Summit, a conference that focuses on women's leadership and empowerment issues, said that female representation in companies is at the forefront of diversity discussions again.
"There's been a lot of mainstream conversation about women's issues in the last few years," Chan said. "This is a new wave of feminism, and it's not just women stepping up for women. Now it's also the private sector."
Intel provides a breakdown of its US workforce, showing that 24 per cent of its employees are women. That ratio is the same at Microsoft, which has a board with a black chairman, John Thompson, and two female directors.
"Diversity is an integral part of Intel's competitive strategy and vision," Patricia McDonald, Intel's vice president of human resources, said. "We have taken the initiative to follow a standard practice of reporting diversity data openly."
Representatives from Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. John Earnhardt, a spokesman for Cisco, declined to comment.
Apple, which doesn't break out the composition of its workforce of 80,000, changed its board-committee charter following objections from shareholders Trillium Asset Management and the Sustainability Group. The investors said they were disappointed that the iPhone maker has only one woman on its eight-member board, and few female members on the executive team that reports to CEO Tim Cook.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been outspoken about improving equality since succeeding Steve Jobs in 2011. Photo / AP
Cook has also been outspoken about improving equality since succeeding Steve Jobs in 2011. Cook and Apple have advocated legalizing same-sex marriages in the US, and for legislation that prohibits companies from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Cook gave a speech in December about his childhood in Alabama and how witnessing a cross burning left a lasting impression on him to fight for equality.
An incident this week underscored how Silicon Valley still retains a boys club atmosphere. Evan Spiegel, CEO of mobile-app startup Snapchat, apologised for profanity-laced emails he sent during his Stanford University fraternity days that celebrated getting drunk and convincing sorority women to perform sexual acts.
In March 2013, Adria Richards received threats of violence and was fired from her software job at startup SendGrid after she posted online an image of male programmers she accused of making inappropriate innuendos at a programming event in Santa Clara, California. Critics said Richards mishandled the offence and defenders said her dismissal will discourage standing up to misconduct.
Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, sued the venture-capital firm last year alleging it treated female employees unfairly by promoting and compensating them less than men. She said she faced retaliation after she complained about sexual harassment.