» The biggest challenge to diversifying tech talent

The biggest challenge to diversifying tech talent

As the effort ages amid slow but steady progress, it needs to find ways to keep its momentum.

In five years, what will the push for diversity in tech look like?

Though the conversation seems louder than ever before, this issue is one the industry will be confronting for some time to come. The challenge is how to achieve meaningful progress and keep people caring after years of incremental change.

"People shouldn't have the expectation that next year it's going to be parity," said Elizabeth Ames, vice president of strategic marketing and alliances for the Anita Borg Institute, an organization focused on the advancement of women in technology. Over the last few years, the subject of diversity in tech has gotten a good deal of attention -- and not always in the rosiest light. Sometimes, it's been a high-profile conflict, as when former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao lost her sexual discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins in March 2015. Other times, it's been jokes about the difference between the lines for the men's and women's restrooms at tech events. Then there was the Department of Labor's lawsuit against Palantir in September for discriminating against Asian job applicants.

There are myriad reasons why it all matters, but one of the most striking is economic opportunity.

The White House regularly hammers the point that there are a half million open jobs in IT, an industry that generally pays well. A recent report from consulting firm Accenture projected that if more serious measures aren't taken, women alone will be missing out on possibly $299 billion by 2025. In 2014, the American Institute for Economic Research found that when it comes to skilled jobs in tech, Asian, black and Hispanic workers make less than their white counterparts.

High stakes, low action. But doom and gloom can be dangerous.

How to read diversity reports

One step Silicon Valley has taken is to start releasing diversity reports. In 2013, then-Pinterest coder Tracy Chou challenged tech companies to start reporting their demographics.

While diversity reports are often released in the name of transparency, that doesn't mean they're easy reads, especially when the most obvious takeaway is something like 1 percentage point of change from year to year. There are a few key metrics Ames looks for as signals of progress. The first is the breakdown for new hires. That's where companies making good efforts in the recruitment and hiring process display change.

The second metric is retention. "The concern becomes if you're just hiring them in and the environment is so negative that they then just turn around and leave, you really haven't made any gains," Ames said.

Finally, there's the percentage of women and minorities in leadership positions. Are they moving up? Beyond the basic idea of whether they're being given the chance for advancement, women and minorities in leadership positions tend to attract others. They're a sign that it's possible to get ahead at a given company, Ames said.

What does 1 percent mean?

The change isn't much to look at.

"Whenever I look at these numbers that go up from 16 percent to 17 percent, or 13 percent to 14 percent, what that tells me is they're not really serious," said Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe.

One percent change can look like no change at all. And it's often accompanied by head-hanging from companies as they acknowledge there's still work to do.

The repetition can be demoralizing.

"Especially for those who are advocates for diversity and care deeply about it, the feeling is that tech companies and leaders simply don't care about solving the problem," Chou said. But there are times when 1 percent is a big difference. For a company like Intel, it represents about 100,000 people.

"We've increased the representation of women in our workforce by 2 percent in a year," Intel Chief Diversity Officer Danielle Brown said. "But 2 percent is really significant when you've got a huge installed base workforce and you're not not a startup doubling in size every year."

This article first appeared in CNET. Read more here.