My experience as a non-White, non-male human in tech was quite literally the reason I bowed out of that world. It was an overwhelming experience that caused me to quit my job without notice one day. I didn’t see it coming at that point in time, though. I was actually under the impression that I was on my way to another 8-hours of microaggression hell that day, when I decided as I walked through the doors that I didn’t actually have to go through that anymore. And so I said, “I’m done,” and I left.
They tell you that it’s not in good practice to quit without notice, but I also don’t think it’s in good practice to force your employees to work in a hostile environment. If you want to learn more about that experience, feel free to check out these zines.
In any case, this Black History month has got me thinking about if the tech world has made any advances in diversifying its ecosystem. To make a long story short, the answer is “no,” but let’s humor ourselves by digging into it.
A CNBC report in 2020 found that “six years after their first diversity reports, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have seen low single-digit increases in their percentage of Black employees.”
Notice that the highest percentage of Black workers in the above graph at any point in this timeframe captured is just under 9%. In general, Black and Hispanic employees in tech make up about 1–3% of the workforce.
These staggeringly low numbers suggest that there are numerous advantages at play that prioritize white people in tech. Some of that has to do with existing realities, such as the unequal distribution of wealth that affects investment, as well as a lack of appropriate action to prioritize diversity and inclusion initiatives within workplace environments.
The people funding tech are not people of color
A 2020 article in the LA Times stated that Black investors make up less than 1% of venture capitalists, and fewer than 1% of startup founders who receive venture funding are Black. At the time of its publish, the same article noted that “a number of premier firms — such as Sequoia, Benchmark, Greylock, and Kleiner Perkins — have no Black partners at all.” When there is no representation in investment, you can imagine it would be harder for Black folks who are looking for funding to get it, when 99% of the room likely have norms around investing that do not consider the experiences of people of color.
Additionally, this staggering level of disproportion clearly illustrates how people of color are not at an advantage when it comes to the distribution of wealth. So, even from the jump, the odds are stacked against Black people in tech when the funding itself is likely to come from stakeholders who do not consider the lack of diversity in this field when interacting with opportunities, which means the executives are less likely to be Black, and down the org chart we go, which brings me to my next point.
Hiring relies on existing networks, and workplace culture determines who “fits in” enough to stay
If a founder is white, their investors are white, and their network is white, you can imagine that their first employees will likely be white. It’s such a simple deduction that “devil’s advocates” will likely argue is too simplistic of a formula, but consider that 48% of businesses have stated that their top channel for hires is through referral networks.
Another factor to consider in the lack of Black employees within the tech world is fitting in. My personal experience in tech involved years of fake smiling through the cis, hetero, white bro-iness of the workplace culture. I was passed over for a promotion once for quite literally no reason. I personally find office culture in general to be toxic, but tech offices just hit different with the hostility. If you do not look like your peers, you simply have a harder time assimilating; this is true for most social environments. If most people who work in tech are white, Black people will have a harder time connecting through shared experiences, and thus fitting into their workplace environment. Part of fitting in is also connecting with a mentor, which Black people also have a very difficult time doing; in fact, TrustRadius’ 2020 People of Color Report found that of it’s 1,207 respondents, 63% of the Black people surveyed stated that they found it difficult to find a mentor in the workplace.
The findings of a 2017 Kapor Center study — that surveyed 2,000 employees who left their tech positions — fully support these sentiments, as their findings revealed that “nearly one quarter of underrepresented men and women of color experienced stereotyping, twice the rate of White and Asian men and women.” Additionally, “almost one-third of underrepresented women of color were passed over for promotion — more than any other group.” The study also found that “underrepresented men of color were most likely to leave due to unfairness (40%).”
The requirement that applicants should be a good “culture fit” is often a reason why non-white folks get screened out of being apart of these companies, which further compounds on the lack of diversity in these environments. Even if a person of color is awarded a position within the tech industry, there are other challenges in play that threaten their ability to stay within this sphere comfortably, much of it having to do with workplace culture. This is a big reason why diversity and inclusion efforts should be a driving force behind cultivating a healthy workplace environment, so that Black employees are not only hired, but retained.
It’s not a “pipeline problem, ” it’s a systemic issue
“Well, where are the Black people to hire?”
Such a rebuttal in this discourse holds superficial weight, as it is hard to find candidates of color not because they aren’t there, but because they aren’t being sought after and properly supported. Techcrunch has noted how, “over the years, many have argued that the lack of diversity in tech is caused by a so-called pipeline problem: that there is little diversity in tech because there is not enough qualified talent from diverse backgrounds. However, data proves that this isn’t the case. Often, tech companies will shy away from considering candidates from places like HBCUs, simply because they consider those schools to provide lower quality education than say, an Ivy League school where legacy students are essentially bred to preserve their familial wealth.
The problem is exacerbated even before college though, with a primary school system that does not create equal access to STEM programming for people of color. A Pew Research study found that, “when asked about the underlying reasons why [Black and Hispanic people] are underrepresented in this type of work, those working in STEM point to factors rooted in educational opportunities. Some 52% of those with a STEM job say a major reason for this underrepresentation is because [Black and Hispanic people] are less likely to have access to quality education that prepares them for these fields, while 45% attribute these disparities to these groups not being encouraged at an early age to pursue STEM-related subjects.”
In order to cultivate more diversity in tech, there should be a focus on the path that leads one to employment, which starts with schooling and ends in the workplace. There specifically needs to be more support in the school system to create lanes of opportunities for people of color to have access to STEM programs.
What to do about it
The lack of diversity in tech is no secret, but it’s time that tangible efforts are made to change that. From creating more access to STEM programs for students of color to investing in more Black startup founders, we need to acknowledge all aspects of the journey to employment to properly address this inequality.
The entire ecosystem needs a revamp in the direction of more representation. It would make for less hostile work environments and likely lead to more innovation. A 2018 Deloitte study found that “cognitive diversity can enhance team innovation by up to 20%.” Different backgrounds give way to different ways of seeing the world, and ultimately a more informed way to problem-solve. Tech certainly has the money to invest in diversifying its world, it all depends on if they are ready and willing to see a change.
That Human Over There is a multi-hyphenated writer and entrepreneur. She is also the founder of Unbounded Agency — a creative agency that uses content creation, production and strategy to help elevate underrepresented narratives. To collaborate or just say “hey,” send her an email at email@example.com.