As Code2040 seeks to activate individuals and organizations to join our community, it’s important to take a step back to understand the larger climate within which we operate — we must fully understand the culture that we’re fighting to change.
That’s why, as a part of a service-learning class at Stanford, a fellow student and I worked with Code2040 to put together a research paper answering the question, “What’s missing from the public conversation on racial equity in tech?” We looked for the answer by digging into articles and reports online, in addition to conducting interviews with several Code2040 community members. Ultimately, our findings gave us a better sense of the dominant narratives that come up when discussing the lack of diversity in the tech industry, as well as what solutions we should pursue in changing the conversation.
Here are the four key trends we identified regarding how the issue of racial equity in tech is framed in public discourse.
- Emphasis on the Problem Over the Solution
When we looked at the news sites that receive the most online traffic (according to a USA article that ranked the most popular news sites), and when we simply searched for variations of the phrase “Racial representation in tech,” there was a clear consensus that the tech industry has a diversity problem. All of the articles made mention of at least one bleak statistic about demographics within a company, and almost all of them explicitly stated that tech companies are failing to hire, support, and promote talented people of color. But that’s where most of these articles stopped; they focused on everything the tech industry is doing wrong with virtually no mention of specific ways that companies can improve. (We didn’t consider phrases like “Companies need to do more to support people of color once they’re hired” to be actionable solutions.)
2. Big Tech Companies Perceived as All Talk and No Action
It was also clear from the interviews and online research that most people consider the “Big Five Tech Companies” (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft) to be all talk and little action. People generally distrust the well-known companies that say they want more diversity. When these companies do pursue inclusion efforts, it’s seen as a PR move to improve their diversity stats, not to actually support people of color in tech. One article explains why it’s problematic that the public narrative surrounding inequity in tech is so centered around statistics: “The conversation needs to move beyond just the numbers and examine who has power in terms of influence and decision-making. Otherwise, efforts to improve diversity are limited to who is in the room, and not who is at the table.”
3. Diversity Framed as a Social Justice Issue Only Affecting People of Color
We also found that the lack of representation was almost always framed as a social justice issue that only affects people of color, and rarely portrayed as an economic issue that affects a company’s profitability, the industry, and the country as a whole. Indeed, only three of the 20+ articles reviewed presented racial inequity in tech as having consequences to the economy and the tech industry itself. Of course, this is a social justice issue but, ironically, this emphasis often positions equity as a matter of charity and not justice. This may be part of the reason why companies seem more concerned with statistics and their image than actually changing their culture and practices; the narrative doesn’t emphasize how all of us will suffer as a result of less diversity.
4. Lack of Clear, Bold Language About the Issue
This was an insight brought up particularly by the early professionals we interviewed. Many thought that the conversation on equity in tech didn’t use language that was bold or clear enough in communicating how dire the situation was. They recommended words such as “segregation” to describe the demographic statistics,”and phrasing such as “tech companies systematically exclude POC” rather than “POC are underrepresented.” That, and they recommended using words like “homogeneity” to describe how the white culture within tech seeks to preserve itself.
So what are the takeaways from all of this? Clearly, the dominant narratives don’t relay the urgency of the inequity, its wide-ranging consequences, or any adequate solutions or source of optimism to the public. But by uplifting and supporting advocates in the tech space, and by making the issue more proximate to the public, we can fill that gap and can work to inspire action towards change.
While is this is a big task for any organization to take on, we are inspired by community members who shared that, while this work is difficult you just have to keep at it. With new narratives and messages, we hope to convince people of just that.
We’d love to know what you see in the conversation around racial equity in tech. What’s missing? What needs to change?