It wasn’t until early 2014 that the general public had an understanding of how deep the tech diversity deficit runs. Early diversity reports volunteered by tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter revealed the industry’s staggering disparities among racial and gender groups, citing a less than three percent representation of Hispanics and African Americans on the payroll across any of the companies.
In addition to coming clean about their majority white employee populations, the companies’ gender deficit also came to the forefront. Women were also severely underrepresented in some of the top tech companies: consisting of 30 percent or less of the employee population, only 15 percent of technical positions, and less than 20 percent of industry leadership positions.
As the fastest growing industry sector, boasting some of the largest wealth gaps in communities home to major tech hubs like Seattle, New York, Washington D.C., and, Atlanta, addressing tech’s exclusivity became a national crisis as the White House reports that nearly 600,000 jobs in information technology are left unfulfilled.
Initial efforts to turn things around
Like any good scandal, tech giants promised to help turn the problem around. Armed with reports and data and lots of public shaming (and we mean lots), an explosion of diversity-focused efforts kicked off a firestorm of activity. Corporations and professionals focused on hiring more diverse talent and utilizing training programs to help employees master topics on cultural inclusion, implicit bias, and the empowerment of women to pursue computer science and other related tech professions once reserved as purely just a “boys club.”
Apple and Facebook made the news when announcing that they’d foot part of the bill for egg-freezing for female employees concerned about being able to start a family and still make waves within their careers.
Meaningful progress? Not yet
Fast forward two years later and the ambitions of these tech companies to get on the right side of history and tap the potential of able-bodied Americans of color and women didn’t exactly move the needle.
The declarations, multi-million-dollar initiatives and well-executed PR campaigns brought heaps of attention to the problem, but are only beginning to scratch the surface of a long-standing issue that will take a significant amount of time and investment to rectify.
To wit, Facebook’s most recent diversity report leaves much to be desired. Employee representation across racial and gender lines didn’t budge since launching their diversity initiatives. However, a small percentage increase in new leadership positions for both people of color and women were seen.
Calling BS on the “pipeline” issue
Why aren’t we seeing tremendous gains since tech promised to help others get into the fold? For starters, tech companies claim that they can’t find diverse talent, often referred to as the “pipeline” problem, is steeped in cultural ignorance.
Engineers and programmers of color and women within these fields are graduating from high-quality programs across the country. It’s just that they’re not getting hired. The tech industry’s misguided concept of meritocracy, sourcing students from exclusive institutions like MIT, Stanford and Harvard (where there are low percentages of minorities and women), is ultimately to the sector’s peril.
Another argument is purely cultural. An office environment stereotypical of twenty-and-thirty-something white or Asian males in hoodies playing ping pong doesn’t exactly resonate across the board for diverse candidates hailing from a variety of backgrounds. But this doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there. It means the tech world has to change its approach to talent identification and recruitment and stop masking its discrimination through words like “meritocracy.”
“The tech industry is metrics-obsessed, always optimizing, and eager to find technical fixes for inefficiencies. But the conversation about diversity in tech is also a conversation about social change—about economic inequality, access to education, and the latent racism and sexism of an industry that prides itself on building the future,” writes technologist Anna Weiner in a recent article for The New Yorker.
“It’s about the social insularity of Silicon Valley, and the insistence on clustering along a forty-mile strip of land, despite the ballooning international reach of technology products. Building momentum for social change is nuanced and painful and slow; it’s tempting to look for shortcuts.”
Thinking outside of the Silicon Valley bubble
Perhaps another solution for tech’s diversity problem means seeking talent and innovation outside of the tech bubble. High-tech cities are accompanied by high costs of living; some of the most coveted tech jobs are located in areas that are out of reach for many, particularly people of color.
According to venture capitalist Ross Baird, CEO of Village Capital, a whopping 78 percent of venture capital is concentrated in California, New York, and Massachusetts. Of that 78 percent, 97 percent is given strictly to white and Asian male founders.
There’s no surprise here, folks. Investors, like employers, identify with people much like themselves with similar backgrounds.
However, Baird argues that talent has no boundaries. He writes:
If we put money behind talented entrepreneurs who are tackling problems in cities beyond the traditional startup hubs, we’ll see better results for both investors and the world. By expanding our reach, we’ll end up backing ventures with solutions to the country’s biggest problems: access to opportunity for all, through improvements in health, education, and financial services, and improving how we use our resources as a society, through better innovations in energy, water, and food.
The numbers don’t lie. While being transparent has opened the floodgates of scrutiny for many of these companies, it has also held them accountable, both publicly and internally, for how they move forward to support better pipeline advancement.
By keeping the data fresh, measuring their efforts, and developing strategic initiatives to increase recruitment outside of its traditional practices, tech companies can turn the tide.
One thing is for sure, the issue won’t be solved overnight.
Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact writer covering the intersection of technology, sustainability, and innovation. She is also founder and editor of ThePLUG—the definitive source for daily black tech news.
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