In 2013, Tracy Chou emerged as a champion for gender equality. The software engineer who brought her talents to Pinterest led efforts to solve one of the tech sector’s biggest shortcomings: the lack of women. But upon further inspection, the Stanford grad saw yet another problem: diversity.
Then her 2015 essay “The Uncomfortable State of Being Asian in Tech” launched her into the Silicon Valley stratosphere as an advocate for inclusion. She wrote, “To my fellow Asians in tech: It’s time for us to start caring, to start talking, to start doing something about the racial disparities in our industry. To everyone else: Don’t let us off easy on this. We’re part of the industry too, and we need to take part in fixing it.”
Leading the charge has taken its toll, however. Activism and engineering are non-stop gigs, so Chou has decided to move to New York “to take some time off” (she left Pinterest in June). These days, she spends more time on her side hustle, Project Include, an open community working toward providing meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions for tech companies, as she formulates a plan for her dream start-up. On the eve of Women’s Equality Day, Glassdoor caught up with Chou to get her take on diversity and gender equality in tech—a “state of the workplace” so to speak.
GLASSDOOR: Looking back on the past couple of years when “diversity in tech” became a buzz phrase and equal pay for women became a focus of companies, how hard have we come in the fight for equality in the workplace?
TRACY CHOU: It’s hard to know at this point. We don’t even fully understand the baselines of where we are in terms of demographics and how we’re doing on inclusion because tech companies have not gathered enough data. Much of what they have gathered is still not granular enough to know whether things like the pay gap are shrinking.
Even though this year Apple reported improving racial and gender diversity among employees?
TC: There are a few things about all of the data that can be improved. One is having a better standard. Right now, every company defines the metrics in slightly different ways and there is no standard for reporting. That is one of the things that Project Include is trying to work on: defining a standard set of metrics to track diversity and inclusion across different companies. We’re working with a number of companies in our first cohort of startups to test.
The other big to-do is digging more into the question of intersectionality and exploring data beyond gender. Research about the gender pay gap in the American workforce (not specific to tech) shows even more disparity when race is considered. Black and Latina women are paid a lot less, relative to white and Asian women. When we lump all women together in the data analysis, it hides much of that story.
It sounds like you’re saying companies have not made enough progress as it pertains to gender equality and diversity.
TC: It’s taking too long. If companies really wanted to make changes they would make change very quickly. Just look at the pace of product development, for example, or the speed at which companies will deploy new management practices, like holacracy. Companies are willing to try very radical things for matters of business priority. Diversity simply hasn’t been viewed as a priority and that’s why it’s not being solved.
It has been reported that Asian-Americans can often be excluded from conversations about diversity and inclusion in leadership and non-tech sectors. How do you encourage Asian women like yourself to lean in when it comes to the diversity debate?
TC: First, there’s creating the right environment—one that is inclusive and open—for people to speak up. For Asians or Asian-Americans, I think some of the reticence comes from cultural expectation that we conform to the model minority stereotype, the idea that we’re supposed to put our heads down and work hard and then good things will follow, and that we don’t “rock the boat”. Removing some of that cultural expectation and rewarding uncomfortable discussion is a start.
[Related: 5 Tips to Researching a Company’s Culture]
Did you ever feel conflicted by being an activist and an engineer?
TC: I wouldn’t characterize it as a feeling of conflict—it was more that, for a long time, it never even crossed my mind that I could be an activist, or that I could be both an engineer and an activist. This analogy might be a stretch, but it’s been on my mind because of the upcoming election: I think there are parallels between this question of encouraging people to speak up and to be activists, and turning out the vote in a democratic setting. People don’t always understand how powerful and expressive they can be, and write off their own ability to bring about a world they want to see.
What is Project Include doing to affect change?
TC: There’s been a lot of talk about problems, the lack of diversity in tech. Project Include is about solutions. And we know that these solutions have to be inclusive and intersectional, and approached in a comprehensive way, and progress has to be measured and companies and their execs held accountable. We’ve written down these values, as well as concrete recommendations and resources that we’re hopeful can be a good guide for tech startups trying to get diversity and inclusion right. We’re also running a couple of pilot programs right now, one called Startup Include and one called VC Include, designed to help startups and VC firms, respectively, put some of these recommendations into practice. And with these programs we’re collecting metrics that we can aggregate and release as a baseline for industry and to help define standards around the data.
[Related: Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap]
You have a pretty positive outlook on this. That’s impressive. Sometimes the media can make diversity in tech seem so uphill.
TC: It definitely is disappointing to see the lack of progress so far, but it also isn’t surprising given how companies have approached it up to this point. Which is to say, they’ve made vague statements about wanting to improve, but no plans to make that happen. Hopefully, when companies start to set actual targets around diversity and inclusion and hold themselves accountable to those targets, we’ll see change.
How do you stay encouraged to continue to drive towards equal pay and diversity?
TC: A lot of it is understanding that social change takes a long time, and being okay with the time scale, but in the meantime, it is very rewarding to work with the community and people like my teammates on Project Include on these efforts. There’s a lot of encouragement that comes from being in it together and trying to make change together.