Some Tech Companies Hiring Chief Equality Officers to Tackle Diversity Problem

Tony Prophet is Salesforce's first chief equality officer. He will report to CEO Marc Benioff. (Courtesy of Salesforce)

Twitter has one. So does Pinterest. And this week, Salesforce got one, too: a chief equality officer.

Tony Prophet has stepped into the newly created role at Salesforce. He's part of Salesforce's executive leadership team and reports to CEO Marc Benioff.

“Marc wants a partner to work with him to make sure that there’s somebody at the leadership table every day,” who is forwarding the agenda of equality, Prophet said.

Job titles such as chief equality officer and chief diversity officer are emerging in the tech industry as it turns to high-profile strategies to address its “diversity problem.”

Salesforce's diversity numbers as of Aug. 15, 2015. The company recently hired its first chief equality officer to try and reverse the trend.
Salesforce's diversity numbers as of Aug. 15, 2015. The company recently hired its first chief equality officer to try and reverse the trend. (Salesforce website)

Salesforce’s lack of racial and gender diversity reflects the tech industry at large. And like the rest of the tech industry, its diversity data have not budged. So you can understand why some critics see this trend of hiring diversity chiefs as window dressing, says Jo-Ellen Pozner, a professor at Santa Clara University's Business School.

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“This can be perceived as marketing and thought about cynically,” she said.

Pozner says there’s little evidence that the proliferation of the diversity chief position has significantly changed Silicon Valley’s workforce. However, she says there can be a value to having somebody in an organization dedicated to the issues surrounding diversity.

“Whether or not any individual diversity officer is making a huge difference to their organization, it’s very important for this conversation to be had,” Pozner says.

Facebook released these diversity numbers in July, 2016. The social network has had a Global Directory of Diversity since 2013.
Facebook released these diversity numbers in July 2016. The social network has had a Global Directory of Diversity since 2013. (Facebook website)

There’s a fair amount of research that shows having candid conversations about race in the workplace brings about more creative solutions and helps retain workers of color, Pozner says.

The office messaging app tech company Slack has recently been getting attention for making progress in diversifying. The company’s engineering team in the U.S. is about 9 percent black.

Leslie Miley, the director of engineering at Slack, says the company has accomplished this, in part, by giving coding tests that don't reveal an applicant's name or background.

“So we don’t know where you went to school, we don’t know what company you worked at, we don’t know your name, we don’t know anything about you when it’s graded,” Miley said.

Miley, who is African-American, has been an outspoken advocate for diversity in tech. He made headlines in November for leaving his engineering post at Twitter because of the way it approached diversity. He took a pass on a severance package so he’d be free to speak up about his experience at the social network company.

Slack doesn’t have a chief diversity officer and Miley is skeptical of tech companies that are pushing to hire them. Instead, he believes that in order for diversity efforts to have real teeth, the responsibility must belong to the CEO.

“Because that’s where the buck stops,” Miley said.

Miley says Slack’s CEO has taken on that responsibility. And he says that’s the way it should be. Because sometimes, the only way things get done is when the big boss demands it.

This story is part of our ongoing series on Techquity: Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Silicon Valley.