Silicon Valley Hides Its Race Problem With The Excuse That Transparency Would Give Away Trade Secrets

Written by Ann Brown
Building complex in Mountain View, California | Image: Anita Sanikop

Despite a continuously expressed commitment to diversity, it seems that some tech companies are withholding their diversity stats by claiming the data are “trade secrets.”

Among these companies are Palantir and Oracle, who say they are “keeping their diversity stats under wraps citing fear that competitors might poach their talent, among other excuses,” Afro Tech reported.

It’s no wonder that they are trying to hide their diversity records. Data analytics company Palantir, for example, had no female executives and only one white woman among their managers, according to an investigation by the Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting, Afro Tech reported.

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Reveal filed various Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the 2015 EEO-1 report showing the breakdown of a tech company’s workforce by race, gender, and broad job category. While some companies complied, others chose to block the request with claims of protecting “trade secrets.”

“Thanks to our lawsuit, we now know that just under 13 percent of Oracle’s executives in 2015 were women, including co-CEO Safra Catz,” Reveal reported. “Two-thirds of major Silicon Valley companies had a better representation of female executives that year. And like Palantir, Oracle’s workforce was 90 percent white and Asian.”

According to Oracle, releasing its diversity figures would threaten its competitive advantage.

But there is already data available.

“The latest U.S. government data, released in 2016, reinforces the point. While the proportion of women has crept up, racial disparities persist. Black employees made up less than 3 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce and Hispanic workers accounted for less than 7 percent — little improvement from prior years.

Another study showed that Asians work in disproportionately high numbers in tech, but are least likely to get leadership roles. Leadership roles, as you might expect, are occupied mostly by white men, Bloomberg reported.

Still, more and more tech companies are arguing that detailed, government-mandated diversity figures should be confidential.

By blocking the release of diversity figures,“companies can use this tactic to hide gender and race disparities and interfere with the advancement of civil rights law and workplace equity,” said Georgetown University’s Jamillah Bowman Williams in a Bloomberg interview. “This is almost like the extreme case of the business case for diversity.”

This isn’t the first time tech companies have used the trade-secrets excuse to withhold their diversity numbers. In 2011 CNN tried to get diversity stats from 20 tech companies. Just three — Dell, Intel and Ingram Micro — handed them over. But when CNN submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the government, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Microsoft asked for an exemption saying the information was confidential trade secrets.

This move has been popular as of late.

When nonprofit Reveal requested the EEO-1s from 211 tech companies in 2018, an overwhelming majority declined. Just 26 complied or had already released the reports. The organization successfully sued federal contractors like Oracle and Palantir for release of the data, despite their objections. Most of the others are still free to use the trade-secret argument, Bloomberg reported.

“This is not like McDonald’s and their sauce that goes on the Big Mac or the Google algorithm that’s the core of its business strategy,” Williams said. “For workforce demographics, it’s unclear what’s so economically valuable to where it would be a detriment, other than reputational harm.”