When the popular messaging platform Slack won a fastest-rising startup award last year, the company sent four black female engineers to accept it.

Onstage at the TechCrunch awards show, one of the women praised Slack’s diversity, citing a statistic from the company’s 2016 diversity report: 9 percent of Slack’s engineering team were black, Latina or Native American women.

“THIS Is What Diversity In Tech Should Look Like,” said one HuffPost headline.

At the 2016 TechCrunch awards in San Francisco, four black female engineers at Slack – from left to right, Megan Anctil, Erica Joy Baker, Kiné Camara (at microphone) and Duretti Hirpa – accept the award for fastest-rising startup. In her speech, Camara cited a number from a Slack employee diversity survey that the company later acknowledged was flawed. Credit: TechCrunch Credit: Reveal

It turns out that number came from an anonymous employee survey that Slack later acknowledged was flawed. While the company had said 6.9 percent of its technical team was black, for example, this year’s diversity report admitted the number should have been 4.3 percent. No mention was made of women of color this year.

How many women of color do work at Slack? The answer is on a one-page form Slack and all companies with 100 or more employees send to the federal government each year. The forms – called EEO-1 reports – show hard numbers of employees broken down by race, gender and job categories such as professionals, managers and executives. But Slack won’t make it public.

Even as California’s Silicon Valley struggles with diversity and discrimination, most of the area’s tech companies won’t share that basic data with the public. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting sought the government-mandated EEO-1 reports from 211 of the biggest San Francisco Bay Area-based tech companies as part of an ongoing project examining diversity data in Silicon Valley.

The requests included the top 150 publicly traded tech companies, as compiled by The Mercury News in San Jose, and dozens of Bay Area “unicorns,” or private companies worth at least $1 billion, as estimated by research firms Crunchbase and CB Insights. Of the 211 companies surveyed by Reveal, only 23 released their most recent reports. One of those 23, Clover Health, now says its report might be inaccurate.

Still, the 23 reports represent the largest public collection of EEO-1 figures that name Silicon Valley tech companies. A few private companies – Pinterest, 23andMe, View and Clover Health – released their raw numbers for the first time. So did public companies Square, a payment processing platform, and MobileIron, which specializes in mobile security. Chipmaker Nvidia also released its latest report exclusively to Reveal.

Companies are under no legal obligation to release the reports, and the government keeps them confidential. But a recent push for transparency led some tech giants, including Google and Facebook, to share their raw numbers.

Since 2004, Alex Karp has led Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company that paid nearly $1.7 million earlier this year to settle government claims that it discriminated against Asian applicants. Palantir is one of many tech companies that have not made their EEO-1 forms public. Credit: Alex Brandon/Associated Press Credit: Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Most others – including name brands such as Dropbox, Instacart, Netflix, PayPal, Pandora Media, Reddit and Tesla – still resist or put out basic pie charts that can be misleading, difficult to verify and impossible to compare. Three companies the federal government has accused of discriminatory hiring – Oracle, Palantir Technologies and Splunk – also failed to disclose their demographics.

For tech firms that did disclose, the numbers were particularly stark for executives. Twitter, Square and 23andMe did not report a single black, Latino or multiracial executive in 2016. Female executives who were black, Latina or multiracial were nonexistent at eight of the 23 companies, including Adobe Systems, Google and Lyft.

The EEO-1 reports often are criticized for using clunky, outmoded categories. The multiracial option, for example, doesn’t specify races. And the “professional” job category includes both tech workers such as software engineers and non-tech employees such as lawyers, accountants and human resources specialists. Still, the raw numbers are the only standardized way to compare companies.

Among professionals, Google and Apple had some of the lowest proportions of women, with 25 percent or less. Nvidia sat at the bottom, with 16 percent. Google fired an engineer in August over a memo arguing that biological differences make women less suited to tech or management. For all of the firms, the vast majority of female professionals – 80 percent or more – were white and Asian.

For black professionals, Hewlett Packard Enterprise had the highest proportion at 6.4 percent, compared with 1.7 percent at Apple and less than 1 percent at eBay. The online auction company also had the lowest proportion of Latino professionals. Underrepresented minorities — including black, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander and multiracial employees — made up 8.7 percent of Uber’s professional workforce, compared to 14.2 percent for Lyft.

Asian employees generally were much better represented among professionals than managers or executives, where the ranks were usually whiter.

A tight hold on data

The battle over disclosing demographics is old news to veteran diversity advocates such as Erica Joy Baker. She argues that tech firms should share much more: promotions, departures, salaries and company ownership – all broken down by race and gender.

“We’re still having a fight about step one, we’re still having a fight about the bare minimum,” she said.

Baker was onstage as a senior engineer at Slack when the company won the startup award last year. But she couldn’t move up the ladder, she said.

“I started getting really demoralized and thinking maybe I shouldn’t be a manager,” she said.

Baker got several outside offers and ended up as a senior engineering manager at the startup Patreon.

“So, OK, it wasn’t me,” Baker said of hitting a ceiling at Slack. “Who else is involved in that equation?”

Slack declined to say how many of its employees or managers are women of color. Its EEO-1 report would answer that question.

“As we continue to understand and pursue best practices for advancing inclusive environments and reporting diversity data, we may consider publishing our EEO-1 reports in the future, but we are not planning to do so at this point,” a Slack spokeswoman wrote in an email to Reveal.

Fast-growing startups rarely have good processes for fairly evaluating and promoting engineers, which can hit people of color hardest, said Leslie Miley, a former engineering director at Slack and former engineering manager at Twitter. It’s important, though, for companies to share their raw numbers, he said.

“How can you get better unless you are truthful about what the situation is?” he said. “I don’t understand why companies don’t share those publicly.”

Diversity numbers rarely generate positive headlines, but they can make companies confront reality.

“Internally, it’s that, ‘Oh man, our numbers are coming out again, how do we look?’ ” said Judith Williams, who was head of diversity at Dropbox and a diversity manager at Google. “It forces a conversation both externally and internally.”

Relying on percentages

If they disclose any numbers at all, most companies offer limited pie charts on diversity webpages or in corporate diversity reports. They say the government reports don’t reflect how they view their own workforce. The firms invariably use percentages instead of raw numbers.

“I think they don’t want people checking their math,” Williams said.

Some companies won’t disclose numbers because they’re afraid they’ll get sued, said Pat Gillette, who was a defense lawyer for decades and is now a San Francisco-based mediator and speaker on gender diversity.

“They feel like if they put it out there, they open themselves up to potential class actions based on the numbers,” she said, “which probably means they have a problem.”

Corporate diversity reports, she said, are easier to control than the EEO-1 form.

“They can massage their numbers by how they define things. Because that’s our job, that’s what we do,” Gillette said. “A lawyer can make pretty much anything look pretty good.”

The CEO of cybersecurity company Lookout said on the company’s diversity webpage that its numbers were “on par with our peers in the tech industry.” But its stated percentage of black employees, 0.4 percent, is lower than all 23 companies that disclosed their raw numbers to Reveal. Lookout removed the “on par with our peers” language after questions from Reveal.

Lookout’s diversity page said the company was “making our diversity metrics public to keep ourselves accountable for change.” But Lookout wouldn’t provide the numbers it reports to the government, calling it sensitive information.

San Jose-based Synaptics called the aggregated, nameless statistics “personal and confidential information.” The subject is so sensitive that one prominent startup wrote in an email: “Off the record, I can tell you (the company) is proud of it’s (sic) inclusivity.”

Oracle – which is facing government allegations that it favored Asian job candidates and paid white male employees more than others with the same job title – provides a basic gender breakdown of its workforce but ignores race. Palantir Technologies, which paid nearly $1.7 million earlier this year to settle charges that it discriminated against Asian applicants, has a diversity webpage without any numbers. Tesla, fighting suits over sexual and racial harassment, doesn’t share basic demographics either.

Instead of releasing raw numbers, Varian Medical Systems pointed to a company report that included percentages for only its 2016 summer intern program, which it said was 42 percent female and “54% ethnically diverse.”

San Francisco-based Sunrun referred to a solar industry diversity report – paid for in part by Sunrun – that said the company was building a “belonging culture” without any specific numbers.

Even companies that pat themselves on the back for diversity didn’t want to talk about numbers. Workday, an HR software company, stated that it “views diversity as a business imperative” in announcing a new director of belonging and diversity in 2016. But a spokeswoman declined to provide Workday’s EEO-1 report.

When asked for an interview about the company’s diversity efforts, spokeswoman Allison Kubota said in an email: “We don’t have the resources.”

Two years ago, Udacity, which provides online courses, announced that it had commissioned a study to “determine how we stack up when it comes to diversity matters.”

A company blog post in December 2015 said, “In our next post in our diversity series, we’ll share with you the results of this study.” Then the company has been silent for nearly two years: no new diversity posts, no study results.

Udacity spokeswoman Amy Lester said the company has been too busy: “We’ve had a ton of growth and many product launches over the past few years and had planned to post something sooner.” This month, Lester wrote by email that Udacity would publish an update “in the next month or so.”

The company wouldn’t release its demographic numbers. “We don’t believe the past EEO reports reflect the current state of the company at this time,” Lester wrote.

A blind eye to women of color

Even when companies put out diversity reports, they almost always have a big blind spot: women of color. There’s usually a pie chart for race and another for gender, but rarely anything mentioning the representation of nonwhite women. (GitHub is a rare exception.)

“Women of color experience the most bias and most marginalization,” said Erica Joy Baker, of Patreon. “That’s a good metric for people to see and know, especially if you’re using those data points to see where you’re going to work.”

It’s part of a larger problem with diversity programs, said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of ReadySet, a diversity solutions firm in Oakland.

“Because they are not thinking of women of color, they are not addressing the problems they face,” she said. “Disproportionately, the beneficiaries of these initiatives tend to be white women.”

The government-mandated reports do account for women of color. But the reports have their own pitfalls. The only gender options are male and female, excluding those with a nonbinary gender identity. There’s no accounting for diversity of age, sexual orientation or disability. And social media companies employ different kinds of professionals from chipmakers, ride-hailing companies or health startups. Clover Health, for example, employs nurses and social workers in addition to software engineers.

There’s another fundamental hitch: The numbers include guesswork. For all employees who decline to fill out forms identifying their race and gender, the company has to guess by looking at them. Judith Williams, the former Dropbox and Google diversity manager, said she’s occasionally been called on for input when someone can’t decide what race to label an employee.

“It can be, ‘I have a thousand people I have to identify, I have to get it done by the end of this week, I am just going through as quickly as I can,’ ” Williams said. “They may have a when-in-doubt-just-click-this-box kind of thing. The problem is you just don’t know.”

Even people who self-identify might check the wrong box as a joke or protest, though that happens rarely, Williams said.

As with any data, there may be errors. Clover Health reported to the government that more than half of its executives were black women. It turns out that 31 black female administrative support workers were accidentally classified as executives, according to a spokeswoman. Also, 10 professional male employees classified as Pacific Islander should have been labeled Asian.

Yet the official government numbers are the only reliable way to compare demographics across companies and years. Journalists have been asking tech companies for their numbers for years, but were mostly rebuffed. (Newsrooms have their own problems with diversity.)

Then, in 2013, a Pinterest software engineer named Tracy Chou called for hard numbers on female engineers and started a spreadsheet to track it, causing some companies to open up. The next year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. started showing up at Silicon Valley shareholder meetings and writing letters to major tech companies, demanding that they release their EEO-1 reports.

“My leader saw that letter and got nervous, because we know what Jesse can do when he gets organizing,” said Rachel Williams, Yelp’s head of diversity and inclusion. “He can embarrass an organization.”

Under the leadership of Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp in 2014 made public its EEO-1 survey – an annual report to the federal government that shows hard numbers of employees broken down by race, gender and job categories. It hasn’t released the report since. Credit: Eric Risberg/ Associated Press
Credit: Eric Risberg/ Associated Press, File

Yelp released its EEO-1 report in 2014, but hasn’t done it since then. In a phone interview, Williams indicated that she would provide a more recent report, then failed to do so despite repeated follow-up requests.

She criticized the government-mandated numbers as out of date and “probably not very interesting.” She said the government forms were invented by “mostly white men” and can “perpetuate a system.” More important, she said, is whether people of color are “feeling as though they’re included, that they belong.”

“We’re missing a lot when we make people choose a particular box that’s designated by the government,” she said. “If you talk to real people who are part black, part Hispanic – whatever ‘Hispanic’ actually means – part Irish, what box do you think you’re supposed to choose?”

Yet when Yelp put out a diversity report this month, the company used the same government categories – with a lot less detail. Like so many other Silicon Valley firms, Yelp didn’t account for women of color at all.

Jackson, in an interview with Reveal, called Rachel Williams’ criticisms of the EEO-1 report “nonsense.” “That’s a diversion,” he said.

Some companies, Jackson said, have slipped backward instead of making progress since his initial campaign. “We’ll have to intensify our actions,” he said. “TBD.”

Editor’s note: The Center for Investigative Reporting receives funding from Google News Lab. All editorial decisions are made independently; donors receive no preferential coverage and do not influence the direction or findings of our reporting.

Journalism organizations have their own problems with diversity. CIR doesn’t file an EEO-1 report because we have fewer than 100 employees, but you can find our demographics here. They were compiled as part of a survey by the American Society of News Editors on race and gender in the newsroom. We’re also working to increase the ranks of investigative journalists of color through the Reveal Investigative Fellows program.

Data fellow Bethney Bonilla contributed to this story. It was edited by Ziva Branstetter and copy edited by Nadia Wynter and Nikki Frick.

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@revealnews.org, and Sinduja Rangarajan can be reached at srangarajan@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @willCIR and @cynduja.

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Will Evans was a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering labor and tech. His reporting prompted government investigations, legislation, reforms and prosecutions. A series on working conditions at Amazon warehouses was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award. His work has also won multiple Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, including for a series on safety problems at Tesla. Other investigations exposed secret spying at Uber, illegal discrimination in the temp industry and rampant fraud in California's drug rehab system for the poor. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee.

Sinduja Rangarajan is a data reporter at Reveal, focusing on academic collaborations around workplace issues. She is the organizer of Mind to Mind, a symposium that brings academics and journalists together to foster conversation and partnerships. She is a former Google News Lab fellow. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.