It’s called “culture fit,” an amorphous term tech companies throw around to describe how well they think prospective hires will fit into an organization.
Do they play well with others? Do they value the same things the company says it values? Do they share the interests of the people already working there?
The phrase may sound bland and innocuous. To some ears, though, “culture fit” is an expletive.
“It just makes me pissed every time I hear it,” laments Jess Stetson, a veteran Portland technology manager and marketer.
Oregon’s tech sector, as in other parts of the country, remains predominantly white and male. Despite declarations from employers big and small that they want to diversify their companies, there has been little progress.
To Stetson, who is a white woman, and others from underrepresented groups in Portland’s tech scene, “culture fit” sounds like an excuse to hire more of the same type of person already working at a company – and to exclude categories of people struggling to find a foothold in a persistently exclusive industry.
“It feels like just another way to rule out bringing in people you don’t know,” said Stetson, 35.
Just 31% of Oregon tech workers are women, according to the U.S. Census – a smaller share than women occupied 25 years ago. Just 2% of the state’s tech employees are African American; only 6% are Hispanic.
A new survey of nearly 5,300 tech workers by Portland Women in Technology points to one possible explanation for the enduring disparities: Most white people in the industry said their companies take diversity seriously and would recommend someone from an underrepresented group work at their company.
But among people from other racial and ethnic groups, and transgender people, fewer than a third agree.
“These initiatives that are being built are resonating with white people,” said Megan Bigelow, PDXWiT’s board president, who is white. However, she said, the efforts of the white people who generally run those companies aren’t resonating with the people they say they’re trying to reach.
Women were essential contributors in the early days in computing, but academics note they were displaced over time by men who had more exposure to computers when they were young and by emerging gender biases.
Manufacturing used to dominate Oregon technology, with women filling all manner of jobs at big employers like Tektronix. As the share of production work in the Silicon Forest has declined, though, women haven’t been on equal footing in contemporary jobs.
Technology is among Oregon’s most vital industries and most lucrative fields. Software jobs average nearly double the mean wage in the state — $119,000 for men, nearly $87,000 for women, according to Census data.
By excluding large categories of people, and by paying some groups much more than others, the sector is effectively restricting access to well-paying jobs and increasing disparities in Oregon’s economy.
“The people that generally don’t see value in diversity and inclusion are the people that are being served by the status quo,” said Jesselle Hedman, a Portland human resources professional who describes herself as mixed race.
Diversity initiatives should begin at the very top of the organization, she recommends, with a visible commitment from the CEO to change the culture. Hedman suggests making diversity one of the company’s key performance indicators, and ensuring that hiring managers consider diverse candidates for every opening.
“My recommendation would be to slow down and really understand the readiness of your organization,” Hedman said.
Those in underrepresented groups say it can be a struggle to achieve any degree of representation.
“I feel like people like to hire people they know and they get along with,” said Dawn Mott, 37, an African-American software developer in Portland.
At a developer conference earlier this year, a panel discussion Mott attended had no women panelists. Afterwards, Mott said she asked two of the panelists why. She said they asserted here were no women leaders in development and doubted she was a developer.
“I was in a turtleneck with slacks. Should I have worn a T-shirt? Would that have been better?” Mott asks, incredulous.
At work in Portland, she said, her employer seems to be making an effort to hire diverse candidates. But Mott said she feels compelled to continue raising the issue to maintain interest in the topic.
“I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I have a big mouth,” she said. “If I don’t talk about it who’s going to?”
In conversations, Stetson, Mott and several other Oregon tech professionals from underrepresented groups stressed repeatedly that managers and executives dismissed concerns they raised about their workplace.
They said employers had declined to add inclusive language to job postings, resisted concern about using offensive language in product descriptions or decided not to require diversity training for their colleagues.
One aspiring software developer, a 28-year-old Hispanic man from Beaverton, said he consistently finds himself the only nonwhite person in the room at job interviews. The man, who asked that his name not be published to avoid turning off prospective employers, said it’s “demoralizing” to see one hiring panel after another that looks exactly the same.
Given Oregon’s long history of racism and exclusion, the developer – who has lived nearly his whole life in the Portland area – said he’s dubious when Oregon tech companies pledge that they want to do better, that they’re committed to a more diverse workforce.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “We already know what they’re going to say. They’ve been saying the same thing for years.”
Others said companies seem oblivious to the value diverse perspectives bring to product design and customer communication, helping businesses reach a broader market. And Mott said diversity brings a lot of value to the office, too.
When employees from diverse backgrounds can see themselves in their colleagues, she said, they feel more comfortable on the job, and more productive.
“It should be a human right to be mirrored,” Mott said. “I feel like I’m definitely a better employee when I have a community.”