A New Report Takes on the Tech Industry's Diversity Problem

Tech companies like Facebook and Google pride themselves on being innovative, but when it comes to hiring practices, these same companies follow a very old playbook: very male, and very White.

That’s a big problem. Open MIC released a report last week called Breaking the Mold that documents the serious lack of diversity in the tech industry. Compared to their presence in the overall labor force, Black people, Latinxs and Native Americans are underrepresented in tech by 16 to 18 percentage points. This disparity is even more evident for women of color: Women hold 25 percent of all computing jobs, yet Black women hold only three percent and Latinas one percent.

Meanwhile, a nearly ubiquitous culture of both implicit and overt discrimination forces people of color to leave the tech industry at more than 3.5 times the rate of White men. Tech workers of color report facing gender and racial stereotyping, being mistaken for custodial staff, being called on to provide more proof of competence than their White peers, etc. Tech workers of color are also promoted less and paid less, with Black and Latinx employees earning on average $3,656 and $16,353 less per year, respectively, than their White peers.

Why should this matter to tech companies? First of all, the report points to clear evidence that lack of racial diversity undermines a company’s financial performance. That means these supposedly innovative, groundbreaking tech companies are leaving money on the table when they fail to break from biased and outdated hiring traditions.

Even more important are the consequences we face as a society. Tech jobs tend to be high-paying and stable, and the absence of people of color in these positions only reinforces the broader racial-wealth gap in the United States.

Moreover, when people of color are left out of the process of building new technology, that technology often harms them. Consider data-monitoring companies that brag about surveilling Black activists; social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, whose policies fail to protect people of color from harassment; and inherently flawed predictive-policing algorithms that further criminalize Black and Brown communities. And most facial-recognition software can’t recognize Black faces as well as White faces, leading to false positives when police use this technology to identify suspects — and further reinforcing the over-policing of communities of color.

These disturbing examples usually don’t stem from conscious decisions to harm people of color; rather, they’re the outgrowth of an overwhelmingly White industry that’s largely blind to the needs and experiences of Black and Brown people.

None of this is new. In fact, the tech industry has promised for years to make diversity a priority — but so far progress has been meager at best.

Open MIC lays out a series of creative solutions for companies to right this persistent failure, including improving data collection on racial diversity at tech companies, engaging White employees on diversity issues and establishing accountability measures for hiring and compensation.

These are important steps. Solving tech’s lack of racial diversity will require a multi-pronged approach backed up by serious analysis. Breaking the Mold contributes to that critical work.

But tech companies also need to dig deeper and investigate their built-in biases. As the report notes, many tech companies have blamed their diversity failures on an educational-talent pipeline that props up White students while passing over students of color.

While it’s true that educational institutions still have significant room for improvement, recent research shows that the pipeline isn’t the only issue. As Open MIC notes in its report, “Black people and Latinxs now earn nearly eighteen percent of computer science degrees, but still hold barely five percent of tech jobs. For people of color, the ‘right’ education and credentials are no guarantee of a job.”

People of color are in the pipeline, but they aren’t being hired. Most major tech companies look at only a very limited slice of that pipeline: graduates from Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley and other highly prestigious institutions.

Tech companies will punt and claim that’s because they’re looking for the best of the best, but there are incredible tech programs at universities across the country that produce outstanding graduates of color — and almost none of them make Facebook’s top recruiting list.

Elite institutions have long legacies of offering students a top-tier education, but those legacies are also mired in systemic racism. Not everyone can afford to attend an elite school, not everyone has access to the classes and tests elite schools require and not everyone can spend summers padding their college applications with unpaid internships. This means that elite schools are disproportionately inaccessible for people of color — regardless of their talent.

When tech companies refuse to broaden their scope of schools, they validate and perpetuate that legacy of discrimination.

Our next generation of tech superstars will come from Stanford, yes, but they will also come from state schools, historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, community colleges and tech programs of all shapes and sizes — but only if Silicon Valley embraces the fact that some of the best and brightest may be hiding in its blind spots. Only then will tech companies demonstrate that they’re committed to authentically empowering people of color.

Original photo by Flickr user WOCinTech Chat