Diversity programs have long focused on how to bring in more women into companies. It’s time to focus on how to make them more racially diverse, too.
This April, I moderated a panel on the racial and gender gap within Seattle technology companies. One of the panelists, Trish Milines Dziko, told the audience something that stuck with me long after the event.
“When it comes to problems with getting ahead, my race mattered more than my gender,” she said. Milines Dziko, a black woman, went on to describe how significant racial barriers to get ahead were in technology and how her nonprofit, Technology Access Foundation, was doing its part to change that for future generations.
Her comment highlighted what I’d been hearing from many women of color nationally; many had difficulty breaking into the industry, and those who did had tremendous challenges progressing to leadership positions. Most I spoke to mentioned that perceptions about their abilities as employees — and particularly as leaders — had hampered their advancement.
And now, sadly, there’s data to back this up.
A new study by Ascend, a nonprofit Pan-Asian organization for business professionals in North America, finds that all racial minority groups face impediments to advancing in technology jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area. The number of black and Latino tech workers in Silicon Valley tech companies has declined between 2007 and 2015. And while Asians are the most likely to get hired, they’re the least likely to advance — particularly if they’re Asian women. Despite a small rise in black executives, the study found the number of black managers dropped 18 percent, with a 13 percent drop in black women in tech overall. Over the period studied, the overall representation of Latinos declined from 5.2 percent to 4.8 percent.
The report’s authors made some specific recommendations to companies looking to truly diversify tech workforces. It stated that company programs should focus on attracting and retaining black, Hispanic and white women with a special emphasis on retaining black women. It also found that programs focused on developing and promoting leaders should target men and women in the black, Hispanic and Asian workforce, with a special emphasis on advancing Hispanic and Asian women.
By all measures, companies aren’t doing enough to prioritize building a workforce that advantages all sectors of the American demographic.
My concern with the blatant disregard for diversity and inclusion among tech employers is twofold. Firstly, people of color are systematically left out of innovative, lucrative industries. Equally important is how the lack of representation means we’re building companies that aren’t as great as they could be if everyone had a seat at the table. Racially diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform their industry peers, a McKinsey & Company report found. And the unintended consequences of homogenous teams building technology for diverse populations are pretty grave; artificially intelligent robots and devices associate European or American names with pleasant words, and African American names with unpleasant words. Facial recognition software systems have a significantly easier time recognizing white faces than black ones.
Companies simply need to do better, no excuses.
The lack of diversity in technology is rightly coming under public scrutiny. However, the focus has long been only on gender diversity, which as the recent debacle at Google demonstrates, certainly needs to be urgently looked into. But as new data now proves, the picture is incomplete without a proper investigation into and correction also of how people of color are being hired, retained and advanced within the technology industry.