Black History Month: Another Reminder Tech Needs Diversity

Carolina Milanesi / February 15th, 2017

It would come as no surprise that tech is a big part of my life, not just my job. As such, many books around the house, podcasts I listen to, documentaries I watch are tech-related. If you read my article ‘What “Hidden Figures” Can Teach Us about AI’ or follow me on Twitter you also know I have a 9-year-old daughter who is mixed race. So, as a mom, I always try and make sure my girl has role models for her gender and ethnic background. When it comes to tech, however, finding names of black leaders is still not that easy.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

The most recent Apple Inclusion and Diversity Report shows black employees make up 9% of the current workforce and 13% of new hires. When looking at leadership, however, that 9% drops to 3%, a number that has not changed since 2014. At Google, black employees represent only 2% of both the overall staff and the leadership. At Microsoft, 3.7% of the employees are black and only 2.1% are in leadership positions. Amazon’s workforce is only 5% black (I could not find any information on how blacks are represented in leadership roles). At Facebook, black employees represent 2% of overall employees and 3% of senior leadership. Twitter, that just last week lost its diversity chief, had recently shared its diversity numbers showing the percentage of black employees in its workforce had remained the same as in 2015: 3%. This was after a very public diversity pledge.

It’s hard for me to look at these numbers and feel encouraged about how inclusive tech really is and what opportunity my daughter will have in it.

The Diversity Wheel

The Diversity Wheel was created by Marilyn Loden in the 1990s to better understand how group-based differences contribute to people’s social identities. There have been several iterations of the diversity wheel but the most common is made of three circles:

  1. Internal Dimensions – age, gender, physical ability and race. These dimensions are usually the most permanent and they are also the most visible.
  2. External Dimension – marital status, work experience, income
  3. Organizational Dimension – management status, work location, work field

The latter two circles represent dimensions acquired over time and can also change over time.

Educational background is one of the external dimensions that contributes to people’s social identity. A recent report by Georgetown University said that, while the number of African-Americans going to college has never been higher, African-American college students are more likely to pursue majors that lead to low-paying jobs. Law and public policy is the top major for African-Americans with a Bachelor’s Degree. The highest paying major among African-Americans is in health and medical administration. The second lowest paying major among African-American is in human services and community organization with median earnings at $39,000. African-Americans only account for eight percent of general engineering majors, seven percent of mathematics majors, and five percent of computer majors. Even those who do major in high-paying fields typically choose the lowest paying major within them. For example, the majority of black women in STEM typically study biology, the lowest paying of the science discipline. Among engineers, most black men study civil engineering, the lowest paying in that sector.

A very interesting point the report also raises is that African-Americans who have strong community-based values enter into college majors that reflect those values. Despite comprising just 12 percent of the population, African-Americans are 20 percent of all community organizers.

Incorporating elements of community service into careers in tech, business and STEM will increase the appeal to Africa-American students and will be a way for tech to be more visible in those communities. This can become a positive circle of evangelization but needs to start with black students seeing the opportunity first.

Diversity is the Nation’s Unfinished Business

How do you break the cycle first? How can my little girl be inspired to be in tech if she does not see enough peoplelike her, not just in tech, but people being successful in tech? Chief Diversity Officer at Case Western Reserve University, Dr Marilyn Sanders Mobley, refers to diversity as “the nation’s unfinished business”. When it comes to tech, it certainly is the case.

The recent focus on immigration have had many comment on how diverse Silicon Valley is. You only need to stroll down Mountain View to bump into Chinese, Koreans, Europeans, Indians. But this only means Silicon Valley is international, not diverse. Dr. Sanders Mobley says you cannot address what you cannot acknowledge and it starts with acknowledging blind spots. Here is the first one: internationalism and diversity are not one and the same.

Another important point Dr. Sanders Mobley highlights is that, when it comes to fostering diversity in the workplace, there is a need for affinity and employee resource groups. Not everybody will use them or need them but they are necessary to provide a sense of belonging.

So it starts with empowering students to enter the workplace aiming for better paying jobs, aiming for management and leadership positions and then creating a work environment that fosters a sense of belonging. Kimberly Bryant’s effort with BlackGilrsCode is a great example of how to plant the seed with kids, in this case girls, right at the time when they are starting to think about what they want to be when they grow up.

While black students are underrepresented in tech education, however, this is not the ultimate issue as there are still more black students graduating than there are currently working in tech. How is that possible? Mostly because the recruiting process is broken. Silicon Valley often looks within itself. Employee referral programs are very common and recruiters, who often do not have any coding or engineering expertise, tend to rely on Ivy League universities and large tech names like Google and Apple as a measure of a candidate’s ability. Then there is a hiring bias. Blind resumes like the ones that Blendoor offer help in making a candidate visible to the recruiter but do not necessarily guarantee an interview, let alone a job.

Widening the pipeline, changing recruiting techniques and increasing awareness of bias will all help to solve what is the ultimate issue in attracting a diverse workforce: nobody wants to be a tick in the box of a diversity report. It is hard to attract a diverse workforce when the current mix of the company is predominantly white and male. It is even harder for a black kid to think he or she can be the next Steve Jobs.

Carolina Milanesi

Carolina is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board. From hardware to services she analyses today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as Chief of Research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech she drove thought leadership research. Prior to her ComTech role, Carolina spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as their Consumer Devices Research VP and Agenda Manager. In this role she lead the forecast and market share teams on smartphones, tablets and PCs.
  • jfutral

    “there are still more black students graduating than there are currently working in tech”

    To add to this, the tech industry is as guilty of collegiate bias as the arts industry. It isn’t just education level, it is where they are educated. In the performing arts, there is what we call the “Yale syndicate” or “NCSA (North Carolina School of the Arts) syndicate, and NYU. Those arts graduates give preference in hiring to fellow alumni. I’ve seen similar in tech.

    Joe

    • klahanas

      Bullseye! No question these schools also compete on connections, perhaps more than they do on content.

      Skull and Bones anyone?

    • carolina milanesi

      yes where tech companies are looking for graduates is certainly a problem. it seems that it is all pretty incestuous

      • obarthelemy

        Branding as a shortcut to value, and… brand repurchase, essentially.

        • jfutral

          Reductionist much?

          Joe

          • obarthelemy

            You’re right, but I find that often produces +1 insightful analyses (I miss the old slashdot ^^).

            I had written a whole blurb about racism + ageism + classism + religionism (forgetting schoolism, but that’s a minor evil, or would be if schools didn’t perpetuate the major evils). Bottom line, I’ve always been happier in diverse companies, both professionally (it’s always nicer when people are recruited based on skills+personality) and personally (much tastier diners ;-p)

          • jfutral

            “(forgetting schoolism, but that’s a minor evil, or would be if schools didn’t perpetuate the major evils)”

            That’s part of the problem, too, right? “Schoolism” acts as a plausible deniability shield, keeping the other “-isms” one step removed. Which is why diversity in scholastic admissions is important, too. Everything affects everything.

            Joe

        • carolina milanesi

          kinda lost you there

          • obarthelemy

            I was trying to say that beyond raw old-boys-network favoritism, companies that have already hired from a school and are happy with their hires will probably tend to assume that other candidates from the same school will work out fine too.
            The résumé becomes equivalent to the brand of an item. You don’t really dig deep to evaluate that specific item, you use the brand/résumé as a shortcut. Same as automatically getting an iPhone 6 after a 5 and a 4.

            I’ve seen it in practice when I was an early filter in the hiring process of a small IT consultancy. Hires from a specific school (rather high-end, but not IT-specific, France’s weird Grandes Ecoles system means the brightest go to the best-ranked schools, regardless of specialization; there’s specialization only further down the rankings or for the not so Grandes écoles) had performed very well because they could evolve up, could communicate with clients, and could switch projects and technologies rather quickly, and meshed with the culture. After a handful of very successful hires, further candidates from that specific school always got an interview, and a benevolent look at their programming tests.

  • Frank D.

    Carolina, luckily your daughter has a great role model (you) that many young girls don’t have.

    I’m a little uncomfortable placing the blame on tech companies or recruiting practices or even universities. The problem of a shortage of tech workers who are minorities, first-generation or low-income (for example, rural poor) doesn’t start there, just ends up there.

    A university near where I live is addressing this problem by running its own STEM-oriented high school, meaning that it’s targeting 14-year-olds:

    https://pphsi.purdue.edu

    Will this succeed? Maybe, maybe not. But certainly the current situation can’t continue, where only 26 students from the largest (urban) school system in the state met that university’s admittance requirements.

    I note that recently this university also hosted the author of Hidden Figures and they had to turn away hundreds because of a SRO crowd. Students like celebrity, particularly if it involves a film with not one but three popular actresses. Still, that sort of turnout for a film that deals with history in all its complexity (both shameful and inspiring at the same time) says something.

    https://blogs.krannert.purdue.edu/undergrad-life/2017/01/26/hidden-figures-author-speaks-at-purdue

    • jfutral

      It is a societal issue that has to be addressed at all levels, simultaneously. You don’t get to be passive and then say “Hey, we’re just the end of the road”. I wouldn’t place all of the blame there, but I would definitely place them within the solution. Especially when Stanford alum give preference to hiring Stanford grads (or MIT, etc). That’s a different kind of systemic issue, but it is still a systemic issue.

      Joe

      • Frank D.

        I’m not sure what solution you’re thinking of. Hire people who are not programmers for programming positions? Get into the education business and create their own programmers? No, these companies will only be hiring experienced coders. And how do you become an experienced coder? You start early in life. I’m not sure what the big tech companies can do about that beyond being cheerleaders for broadening the cross-section of American kids who learn coding.

        Here’s Apple’s contribution from last year’s WWDC. Sure, they would like to see you do Swift on a MacBook and target their App Store, but remember: coding skills are coding skills, regardless of how you acquired them.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJAGqDYmW1o

        If you’re not a coder, be sure to pay attention to the first few seconds so you don’t miss the terrific joke they open with.

        Incidentally, “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap” popped up on Netflix last night. This is the other dismal story of tech worker demographics. The anecdotal evidence is quite compelling for what the problem looks like, although the film doesn’t really give a simple answer for how we got to this state or how to remedy it. It appears that a generation ago women were approaching parity with men in college undergrad computer science majors. Then the number began to drop.

        What happened? I think we have to face the possibility that young women who are good students have self-selected themselves out of the profession in favor of law, medicine, vet science, etc. And a contributing factor to many decisions may have been that even at a fairly young age, they were pretty sure that they did not want to work with the type of men attracted to programming. If that’s the case, then coding camps and inspirational videos won’t be enough. It will take a change in the male coding community. A generational change at the very least.

        • jfutral

          Since my comment was in the context of universities and university bias, universities and tech companies need to look beyond their collegiate alliances. Stanford, MIT, and GaTech (where my daughter graduated) are not the only colleges graduating tech majors. And if you don’t think there aren’t collegiate preferences to their hires it doesn’t take long to Google where tech company hires graduate to see otherwise. Just like universities scout sports candidates through many venues, so too, can tech universities. Universities cannot sit back and say “Well, they were the only ones who applied. That’s all we can do.” That’s a load of crap.

          I did not say nor imply it would be easy or quick, and as I said and your last paragraph seems to concur, it is a broad societal issue. That does not mean universities get to be passive. They have to be an active part of the solution. So, no, coding camps and inspirational videos or movies are not enough. Depending on the “male coding community” to correct itself hasn’t worked. It will take society as a whole to situate an environment where minorities and women can pursue their interest in coding irrespective of the “male coding community”. Good ole boy networks are discriminatory, whether political or technological in nature.

          Joe

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