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Former Intel and Google exec Diane Bryant says Silicon Valley doesn’t have a ‘pipeline problem’ with diversity — it has a leadership problem, says a former exec at Intel and Google (INTC, GOOG)

  • Former Intel and Google exec Diane Bryant, who just took on her first CEO role at a startup, says that Silicon Valley is still way too closed to women and minorities.
  • It will remain so as long as companies keep thinking this is a “pipeline” problem where they have to hire more junior people to work up the ranks.
  • “The whole answer is to get women and minorities in leadership positions,” she says.
  • She tells Business Insider the story of how the outnumbered female execs at Intel launched an advocacy group, and how she got to gender parity with her direct reports leading its key data center group.

Diane Bryant — best-known for her 32-year career at Intel, and recently named CEO of health tech startup Neural Analytics — says that Silicon Valley is still way too closed to women and minorities.

It will remain so, she says, as long as companies keep thinking that the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is a “pipeline” problem where they have to hire more junior people to work up the ranks. Real change, she says, begins at the top.

“The whole answer is to get women and minorities in leadership positions,” she says. “Don’t try to meet your stats by hiring a bunch of [female and minority] junior engineers and think the change is going to happen,” she says.

You don’t have to look hard to see that Silicon Valley remains an uphill career for women and minorities.

Companies are making painfully slow progress toward hiring more women. After years of issuing public reports on their diversity, the big tech companies are still at about 30% women in total and, in technical roles — where careers are made at tech companies — that number drops to about 25%, their diversity reports show.

When it comes to women in leadership, the average is about 25%, too, the reports from top companies show. To put that stat another way, there are typically three male bosses to every female boss in the tech industry. This even true for those companies that get hundreds of thousands of applicants every year.

Bryant has been fighting this battle her whole life. She tells Business Insider the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough applicants from underrepresented groups, and it’s not that women don’t “lean in” towards promotions, as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has put it.

The problem is the barriers that prevent women from landing those promotions.

Remove those barriers, she says, and change will come.

“Women are still a huge minority in the tech world. A huge minority. I’m passionate about this: change only happens when that minority is in a leadership position,” Bryant says.

Learning to swear and becoming an advocate

Bryant famously tells the story of how she had to learn to swear and drink and drive a stick shift in order to fit in with her male Intel engineer coworkers and work her way up the corporate ladder.

She says women and minorities today are still in the same boat, with the burden falling on them to come up with a way to fit in.

“I completely believe still today if you are a minority in any environment, you had better figure out how that majority population operates for you to be successful,” she said.

“And if that means changing your behavior: learning to drink scotch and buying a BMW stick and learning to curse — and that was the hardest for me, learning to curse, because in my family ‘shoot’ was was a bad word. And so if that’s what’s required to be effective in your job, yeah, it’s not an option,” she says.

Being forced to fit in like that is a well-documented psychological phenom called tokenism.

What Bryant experienced, and what the research supports, is that the first person to break the glass ceiling — being the token, in other words — won’t change the culture. A single token representative often can’t open doors for others.

“It wasn’t until Paul Otellini had four women on executive staff reporting to him, four, then we rallied to get there. We bound ourselves together and said we’re going to change the population at Intel. And because we were the most senior, reporting to the CEO, we had the ability to drive change without asking permission,” she said.

Even then the change was hard-fought and deliberate, she says.

When Bryant was named to her senior executive role in 2004 women, only 6% of Intel’s leadership was female, she recalled. So out of hundreds of male vice presidents, there were only 14 who were women, she says.

So Bryant and Intel’s then-head of HR Patty Murray along with then-CMO Deborah Conrad vowed to change by creating “an advocacy program and not this mentoring thing. I just hate mentoring. It’s so passive, but advocacy is an active role,” she says.

Each of the 14 female leaders found two proven women in their teams to sponsor. When a vice president position became available, they recommended those women for the roles. It wasn’t a quota system, she says, but rather the reverse: ensuring that qualified people were not being passed over because they were women. So if the recommendation didn’t work, “I would go to the manager as his senior exec and I’d say, ‘I’d like to understand what are the gaps that you see and why are you not putting this woman up for promotion?'”

As more women gained promotions into VP roles, they turned around and advocated for two more proven women on their teams.

By 2019, 21% of Intel’s leaders were women — not quite at parity, but a big increase from 6%.

Human nature

Bryant is best-known for starting up and leading Intel’s data center business, which had become a $19 billion business by the time she left in 2017. In her time leading that group, she says, half of her direct reports were women.

“And I’m not counting HR. I’m not counting fiance or my administrator, but the line managers. 50%, that was unheard of,” she said.

She says that maintaining that ratio didn’t take conscious effort: Rather, it was just a matter of human nature that she would hire women, who would also hire women.

“Everybody pulls from their network, and there is comfort in hiring people that look like you and act like you and have a similar background,” she says.

That dynamic didn’t just apply to women, either, she says. One of Bryant’s direct reports was a Hispanic woman. “Guess what? Her staff was half Hispanic,” she says.

Such practices help everybody, she says, because they ensure that the most qualified people land in the right positions, regardless of race or gender.

“There are a lot of men that really do believe in the power of diversity. Paul Otellini was one of them. He was about making the system a fair system, independent of gender, race, whatever,” she says of the late Intel CEO.

So was the Intel founder and former CEO Andy Grove, Bryant says, Grove was famously a Holocaust survivor. “You talk about someone that’s been discriminated against. He hated discrimination at a deep, deep personal level and therefore all he wanted was the smartest people in the room.”

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