Does Twitter have a diversity problem?

theGRIO REPORT - African-Americans are not represented in the senior ranks and the executive team, while Latinos are nearly nonexistent throughout company staff...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Twitter, the ubiquitous social media platform, is receiving attention for its impressive debut on the New York Stock Exchange.  The popular microblogging service is valued at around $25 billion, and its launch was hailed in financial circles as a success.

However, as Twitter went public with its I.P.O. (or Initial Public Offering, its first issuance of stock to the general public), the company has received negative publicity for its diversity problem.  Critics note that the Twitter board of directors consists entirely of white men; while women and people of color are wholly excluded from the decision-making positions in the corporation.

African-Americans are not represented in the senior ranks and the executive team, while Latinos are nearly nonexistent throughout company staff.  The only executive officer who is not white and not a man is Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s newly hired general counsel—a woman of Indian descent.

Otherwise, Twitter faces its critics who believe the diversity problem is reflective of the larger high technology industry.  Vivek Wadwha—a fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and co-author of a book on women in technology— believes the paucity of women and people of color does not bode well for the company.

“This is the elite arrogance of the Silicon Valley mafia, the Twitter mafia,” Wadhwa recently told the New York Times.  “It’s the same male chauvinistic thinking. The fact that they went to the I.P.O. without a single woman on the board, how dare they?” he added.

Wadwha told Nia-Malika Henderson of the Washington Post that women become discouraged when they see an “all-male universe,” a boys’ club from which they are excluded.  His solution is to fix the board.

“It starts at the top, it starts with the board, it goes down from the executive quarters to senior management down,” Wadwha said, also responding to charges that corporations have difficulties finding qualified women in the pipeline.  “Look at the board of Twitter.  There’s a French literature major, a philosophy major, two MBAs, two college dropouts and two techies.  So they don’t have a board filled with technology people.  Why do they say that women have to have some special qualifications to be on their board?”

Some of the non-techie members of the Twitter board include former News Corp. executive Peter Chernin and Peter Fenton of Benchmark Capital.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded to Wadwha’s assessment his company as a boys’ club.  “Vivek Wadhwa is the Carrot Top of academic sources,” Costolo responded on Twitter, referring to the over-the-top comedian.

Meanwhile, the twitterverse is a diverse place—slightly more female than male, 74 percent between ages 15 and 25, and dominated by black people, providing a stark contrast to the racial homogeneity of the white Twitter corporate leadership.

A 2013 Pew study found that 26 percent of black internet users prefer Twitter, as opposed to 19 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of whites.  In 2010, 13 percent of blacks used Twitter, while 18 percent of Latinos and 5 percent of whites used the social-networking site.  Twitter is also the most popular choice for urban dwellers—20 percent, as opposed to 14 percent of suburbanites and 12 percent of people in rural areas.

Further, blacks and Latinos are also over-represented on Instagram, while Pinterest is most popular among whites and those who are well off financially. Facebook is widely used everywhere.

There are possible reasons why blacks are a quarter of Twitter users, roughly double their representation in the U.S. population.  For example, Twitter is cellphone friendly, and blacks are more likely to access the web through mobile devices.  In 2011, blacks owned mobile phones at a rate higher than the national average—44 percent vs. 35 percent—and blacks used their phones twice as much as whites, with 200 more text messages per month.

In addition, black celebrities are more active on Twitter than are white celebrities, a factor which may contribute the popularity of Twitter and its conversational format among African-Americans.  A Northwestern University study found that 37.2 percent of black students use Twitter, as opposed to only 20.1 percent of white students, with the difference due to a black preference for “celebrity and entertainment news” content.  Moreover, blacks, whose median age is seven years younger than whites, are a higher percentage of the 25-34-year-olds that favor Twitter the most.

Meanwhile, many popular hashtags, or topics on Twitter, originate from the black community.  Further, young black users tend to retweet more often, reply to posts and follow more people.

The influence of “Black Twitter” was evident in the strong though unsuccessful effort to save Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis in 2011, and the outpouring of support for Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.  As theGrio’s Alexis Garrett Stodghill suggested, Black Twitter played a crucial role in shutting down a controversial book deal by a juror in the Zimmerman murder trial. In addition, black Twitter users have helped to make the ABC television drama Scandal a big hit.

And yet, those who use the tech products are not running the tech companies.  System wide, 27 percent of the 600,000 computer and information systems managers in the U.S. are women, while a mere 5 percent are black and 5 percent are Latino. As Colorlines reports, the tech industry has remained white, with lack of access to technology, venture capital and computer science education presenting barriers to entry for communities of color, who lack the networking necessary for successful business deals.

The wide racial disparity between Twitter executives and Twitter users suggests the corporate leadership is unable to relate to a large segment of its own customers, putting the company itself at a strategic disadvantage. “This is a systematic problem that you’re seeing in the technology industry which must be fixed, because it’s damaging the technology industry, it’s bad for our economy, it’s bad for innovation,” Wadwha said.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove