Facebook Inc. struggled to boost the share of women in its workforce last year, as the social media giant intensified recruitment in technical fields where gender disparities are larger.
Women at Facebook made up 36.7% of the workforce by the end of June, down .3 percentage points from the year prior, according to annual diversity report released Thursday, the first time the number has dropped. Maxine Williams, the global chief diversity officer, attributed the drop in female representation to the company’s overall increase in technical roles, which is dwarfing recruitment for other types of jobs.
Despite the overall drop, the social networking company boosted the share of women and underrepresented minorities among its leaders and workers in technical roles, the company found, even if that wasn’t enough to reverse the trend. By the end of March, Facebook’s head count was 60,654, an increase of 26% year-over-year. Facebook said during the last earnings call that the company was investing in new technical and product talent.
Across the U.S., women account for 25% of those working in computer occupations—a figure that declined from 2000 to 2016 and has remained stable since then, according to a Pew Research Center report released earlier this year. Women continue to be vastly underrepresented among engineers and architects, Pew.
Facebook’s struggle to significantly increase the ranks of women among its technical workforce may not be helped by the departures of two high-profile female leaders overseeing its product initiatives. Fidji Simo, who was vice president and head of the Facebook app, left the company last week to become chief executive officer of Instacart Inc. Simo was replaced by Tom Alison, who was Simo’s No. 2 executive, and previously had short stints running the app while she was on leave. Deborah Liu, who created and led Facebook Marketplace, the social media site’s classified advertisement service, also recently left the company to become CEO of Ancenstry .com Inc.
That means all of the company’s highest ranking product executives including the leaders of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and its hardware division are men. Williams said her team is working to diversify the pool of talent that could be selected for top management roles at the company, adding that both Simo and Liu had developed their careers at Facebook over a long time period.
“Making sure the bench and all of the levels are as much as possible well represented by a diverse slate of people is the very business that we are in,” Williams said. “It’s a long play.”
In 2019, Facebook pledged to double the number of female employees globally over five years. Facebook also said it wants half of its workforce in the U.S. to be comprised of underrepresented groups by 2024.
The Menlo Park, California-based company increased the number of Black leaders by 38.2% in the past year, surpassing its previous goal to boost the ranks of people of color in leadership positions by 30% over five years, according to the report.
Facebook saw slight improvement in the overall diversity of its workforce at a time when large swaths of its employees were working from home to avoid the spread of Covid-19. In general, female employees have been more likely to report wanting to leave their jobs because of increasing demands at home during the pandemic.
Williams said the pandemic hasn’t significantly hurt Facebook’s retention of women workers, which she attributes to the company’s expanded leave policies. In June, the social media network said it would let all employees work remotely even after the pandemic if their jobs can be done out of an office, but may reduce their pay if they move to a less-expensive area. In fact, Williams argued remote work is likely helping the company recruit and retain a more diverse workforce.
“You don’t have to give up as much,” she said. “If you can stay in your home community and still have the job of your dreams, this is great.”null
Williams also said she didn’t think the very public controversies last summer surrounding hate speech on Facebook’s platforms and its decision to leave up controversial posts from former President Donald Trump significantly hurt its recruiting of diverse workers.
Last year, some employees staged a virtual walkout to oppose the company’s handling of Trump’s posts. Later, an independent auditor released the results of a two-year audit, which found the company failed to properly enforce its voter suppression policies against the former president. Last July, civil rights groups organized an advertiser boycott of Facebook in protest of hate speech that spreads on its platform in the wake of a police officer’s killing of George Floyd.
“Has it affected the bottom line in terms of recruiting? I don’t think those objections have,” Williams said. “But have people objected? Yes.”