Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve been having some very necessary conversations about systemic racism in the United States (and around the world). It’s been a time of deep reflection, pain, healing, and hope. It’s been a time to seek justice, have uncomfortable discussions with the people in our lives, and consider ways we can change the systems that make it harder for Black and brown people to succeed in our society. There’s still work to be done but progress is being made and that’s pretty damn exciting.
At Kenzie, we’ve been using this time to look at the ways the tech industry has contributed to a culture of racism, celebrating the work that’s already sparking change, and putting together game plans to create a brighter future for all. So, what’s the state of diversity and inclusion in tech? Let’s take an honest look at diversity in our industry and the ways we can fill in the gaps.
Where We Stand
The tech industry’s past presents racial and gender disparities in hiring, with a workforce made up of predominantly white and Asian men. At present, artificial intelligence’s (AI) connection to racism is being examined by the industry as stories of sexual harassment and gender discrimination come to light.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)
Tech has been responsible for creating discriminatory products in the field of AI, though many companies are now reexamining these practices in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, The Coalition for Critical Technology called on academics to stop publishing research about predicting criminality from facial recognition software as that research has been proven to be racially biased (Really – how do facial measurements correlate to the potential for crime? Come on, people). Additionally, IBM pledged to stop producing this software going forward. Progress is being made here and the recent discontinuation of facial recognition software makes way for an interesting conversation about why we create the technology we create, who it’s for, and what purpose it’s supposed to serve.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT & GENDER DISCRIMINATION
Sexual harassment and gender discrimination are prevalent in every industry and tech is no exception. Back in 2017, the #MeToo Movement exposed Hollywood’s problems with sexual harassment and abuse. It also sparked broader conversations in media, religion, and business regarding the ways organizations address or cover up these abuses or actively discriminate against women, trans, and non-binary people. Vice reports that a new study found 60% of women in tech have experienced sexual harassment on the job.
The world was given a peek into how this widespread harassment plays out in tech and the toll it’s taken on some women in the industry with the release of several personal accounts and blogs from tech professionals like Ellen Pao, formerly of VC firm Kleiner Perkins. Susan Fowler, formerly of Uber, released her memoir Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber at the top of the year.
According to the New Republic, the book details Fowler’s life from childhood through her education and tech career. Readers can follow her transition between several tech jobs where she faced sexual harassment or gender discrimination. The sheer number of stories within Fowler’s account is alarming and is inciting discussion on how tech can do better to support those who face harassment and rid it from office culture. The creation of organizations like Women Who Code, Project Include (created by Ellen Pao), and Girls Who Code seek to provide that support and community, and advocate to accelerate diversity and inclusion in the industry.
Over the last several years, tech companies have begun publicly releasing annual diversity reports. These reports were part of an effort to be more transparent about the state of diversity in tech. Boston startup Drafted has contributed with its platform DiversityReports.org. The platform aggregates diversity reports from a plethora of tech companies, providing one location for job seekers, researchers, and other curious people to easily browse the reports.
According to a story in Bostinno, Drafted saw a drop in the number of tech companies sending in their diversity data since its 2018 launch. However, with our reignited national conversation around race, the platform is seeing a renewed interest and is rehauling its systems to better support users. There’s some hope to be found in scrolling through the site — you might notice a handful of companies like Lever and Etsy have a 50% female workforce. But you’ll also see room for improvement. In 2019, only 3.3% of Google employees and 3.8% of Facebook employees were Black.
Diversity reporting has seemed to be beneficial in that it has kick-started a conversation about the issue of workforce representation. It’s also a way for companies to be held accountable for their promised diversity efforts (or lack thereof).
Tech is an industry known not just for innovation but also for its vocal employee activists, which is why it may surprise outsiders to hear that tech has a diversity problem to begin with. Google employees have protested against things like the way artificial intelligence is used in some products and the administrative leaves of activist employees. According to The New York Times, employees at Salesforce, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have also participated in workforce activism in recent years.
Tech workers’ dedication to activism speaks to the type of passion and empathy that exists within the industry. On a positive note, it shows that there’s strength in numbers and that employees’ voices can and will be heard at the end of the day. With nationwide protests for racial justice, some tech companies are joining in on the activism of their employees.
As Sam Dean and Johana Bhuiyan reported in the LA Times, “A number of companies have put out statements of solidarity with the protests, though some have been at odds with the companies’ business and hiring practices to date.”
Our past informs our future and many Black tech workers are hesitant to believe these recent statements of solidarity for that very reason (see former Pinterest employees’ stories of racial discrimination). Time will tell how the industry will move forward on these issues and what these employer statements and stances mean for the future of workplace activism in tech. Regardless, employers should look to prioritize action going forward.
There’s a lot of potential to create an industry powered by people from all walks of life. We can expect tech to become more diverse with concentrated efforts to diversify hiring, emphasize inclusion, empower Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) staff, and strive for long-term solutions.
Lots of tech companies are making serious efforts in terms of diversifying hiring, but there’s still work to be done. Looking at numbers from places like Google and Facebook, there’s only been slight improvements over the last 7 years.
Here’s where mentorship can play a critical role in diversifying the industry from a hiring standpoint. Kenzie, for example, is getting involved in changing the face of tech with our #MakeTheHire mentorship program. The program brings together tech professionals and Black Kenzie students in an effort to close the hiring gap. The hope is that mentorship programs like ours will connect new Black and brown tech workers with industry contacts and experience before they even enter the workforce. These connections can help open that hiring door when they begin the job search.
In a 2019 TechCrunch piece on the future of diversity and inclusion in tech, Freada Kapor Klein said that tech companies need to go beyond making intentional hiring decisions, and must look at the ways they’re making new hires feel included after onboarding.
“We’re never going to make any progress by adding talent from diverse backgrounds if we don’t fix the inclusion and culture issues,” Kapor Klein said.
In our blog post on 4 Ways to Support Your Employees, we mentioned that the key to a happy and healthy workforce is quality employer support. Companies should be focusing on ways they can celebrate not just the professional growth of their employees but who they are as people — their unique backgrounds, personalities, cultures, holidays, etc.
EMPOWER D&I STAFF
Many of the biggest tech companies (think Google, Facebook, Apple) have set up Diversity and Inclusion departments within their workforce. These departments have the task of building and maintaining a culture of inclusion as well as advising and intervening with the company’s decision-making processes when necessary. The problem though is that sometimes D&I staff aren’t empowered to step into certain internal decisions or situations. They can become, instead, something for the company to show off externally while internally things still aren’t great in terms of diversity and inclusion.
Companies need to mitigate this by empowering D&I staff to do their jobs and step in (at the executive-level) when decisions are being made regarding diversity and inclusion. Experts have suggested D&I staff report directly to the CEO, as opposed to the HR department. In the end, these job titles aren’t just for decoration – these employees should be empowered to make a real, positive impact.
STRIVE FOR LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS
There isn’t a one-time fix for ending racism or diversifying the tech industry. That’s why it’s essential to strive for long-term solutions instead of focusing on short-term fixes. What does this look like? Moving beyond an annual D&I training, for starters. Creating a safe environment where employees know who they can talk to if or when an uncomfortable or discriminatory encounter happens in the office is also going to be key. Management staff should be prepared to get specific during company-wide meetings about diversity and inclusion. They can also take a targeted approach by focusing on a specific topic every year or quarter. Pinterest, for example, focused its unconscious bias training programming around microaggressions last year (though recent backlash from Black employees is a great example of the company’s room to grow).
Perhaps the most effective way to create fast and real change in diversifying startup leadership is by investing in Black and female-founded businesses. Venture capitalists have consistently not invested enough in these groups. Thankfully, with the rise of VCs like Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital and Candice Matthews Brackeen of Lightship Capital, we’re beginning to see real change. These firms are focused on investing in BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women-founded companies. They’re targeted and making it their mission to help minority-led companies scale up and find success. But, we’ll only begin to see change on a larger scale when non-targeted firms (and those which have been purposely discriminatory) also begin to invest in founders from these groups.
Opening Up More Tech Education Options
Tech education will play a crucial role in fixing the diversity problem in tech. According to the Brookings Institution, studies on the racial wealth gap between Black and white families in the U.S. have found, as recently as 2016, that the net worth of a white family ($171,000) is 10 times that of a Black family ($17,150).
In a detailed report from The Century Foundation entitled How Student Debt and the Racial Wealth Gap Reinforce Each Other, Jen Mishory, Mark Huelsman, and Suzanne Kahn write of the ways the current higher education system in the United States contributes to continued economic and hiring disparities for Black and brown students.
“The higher education system, a resource intended to serve as a primary tool for economic mobility, is not equally accessible for Black and white families,” the report states. “Such inequality is manifest throughout the broader educational system and economy as well. In the United States, every key economic and social resource—from housing to banking to the K–12 education system—developed in a racist political context. All have inequities baked into their structures that limit economic mobility and Black families’ ability to build wealth.”
As the report details, the current student loan system can be predatory towards minority borrowers. This can make getting a computer science or math degree seem unattainable or not worth the cost for some. Others, despite getting their education, are left saddled with debt that keeps them from building wealth for decades.
Luckily, many of the most well-known tech companies are refusing to kowtow to traditional hiring norms which make a bachelor’s degree a requirement for someone to gain employment. Elon Musk of Tesla famously and regularly speaks about how he hires for “evidence of exceptional ability” as opposed to higher education credentials.
Tech educators have stepped in to fill the gap here in the last few years with the founding of short-term bootcamps and long-term coding schools like Kenzie Academy. Getting the education to set oneself up for success in tech should be accessible and affordable. With so many programs on offer now, it’s going to make a huge impact on diversifying the labor market. Thankfully, many of these programs are also offered at a fraction of the cost.
The Future of Tech
The future of our industry can be a bright one if we all work together to dismantle systemic racism and honestly examine the ways we may have contributed to upholding discriminatory systems and practices in the workplace. We’re heartened to see more demand to improve D&I programming, a move away from harmful and biased AI technology, and more VC funds dedicated to investing in minority groups. With a move away from the traditional bachelor’s degree requirement in hiring, the industry is opening up to alternative forms of tech education that are more affordable and focused than previous options. All of this combined will help shape a future made for all.