Black women in tech - a UK perspective
- The tech industry does not have a good track record in attracting and retaining Black women...and it's not just a US problem.
Even though diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) may have risen up the tech industry agenda over recent years, all too many employers’ strategies in this area appear to be falling wide of the mark.
Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Black women. In fact, only about two out of five of the 360 questioned in one recent study believe that DEI policies are actually having a positive effect on their lives. The rest are either ambivalent (37%) or consider their impact to be largely negative (24%).
The research entitled ‘The Experiences of Black Women in the IT Industry’, which was conducted by the UK’s BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, and networking and educational non-profit, Coding Black Females (CBF), was also based on data from the British Government’s Office for National Statistics.
What is going wrong?
So just what is going wrong here? In the view of Charlene Hunter, CBF’s Chief Executive, a key problem is that DEI policy commitments are often made without there being any real substance behind them, which is damaging from a trust perspective. She explains:
DEI policies are frequently not backed up with appropriate budgets to implement them and the people working on implementation are often not experts. It’s generally given to HR as a side-task rather than having a dedicated person or team.
Another issue, says Jessie Auguste, a software engineer at CybSafe, member of CBF’s leadership team and co-author of the report, is that success tends not to be measured:
Initiatives don’t necessarily have metrics tied to them in order to make them effective. But DEI strategies, like KPIs, have to be executed on and so there needs to be someone with the ability to change things and to be held accountable from idea to delivery. There also have to be metrics attached to initiatives so everyone can judge their success. Where DEI policies do damage to a company’s overall perception is when it’s not possible to demonstrate the positive impact they’re having on people. It’s not done out of malice, but initiatives can end up falling by the wayside in that instance.
Auguste also points to the importance of clear communications, even if initiatives do not produce the desired results:
Failing to acknowledge when you haven’t necessarily delivered on something and communicating both internally and externally that you haven’t done as well as you’d like can leave information gaps and cause people to lose hope. So it can actually make things worse.
The situation of Black women in tech
But it is clear that genuine, concrete action does need to be taken. On the one hand, Black women are grossly underrepresented in the tech industry. For example, according to the UK study cited, while women of all backgrounds and ethnicities make up around 22% of the entire tech workforce (about 424,000), Black females comprise only 0.7% of the total (about 12,000) – despite accounting for 1.8% of the UK’s entire working population.
In other words, there are two and a half fewer Black women employed in IT than in the UK workforce as a whole, which amounts to a shortfall of around 20,000 people. As to why this shortfall is taking place, Hunter - as well as two thirds of the survey’s respondents - believes it is less to do with lack of interest in tech-related work and more to do with the barriers to entry many Black women face. She explains:
Typically people enter the tech industry through university, but many companies say they only want Oxbridge graduates etc. But as these universities already have issues with systemic racism, you’re already narrowing down the pool. Also boot camps are fab, but they cost between £8,000 and £10,000, which limits those people who can’t afford them, especially as they have to quit their jobs to take part. Another factor is that professions like accountancy and law have very clear paths to entry, so that again narrows the pool as, with tech, people can’t see a clear path.
But even if Black women do obtain relevant the qualifications, it appears they are still less likely to get a permanent job. Although no specific figures exist about Black females, the unemployment rate for IT specialists from ethnic minority communities as a whole is 2.8% compared with 1.6% for their white counterparts. Members of ethnic minorities are also twice as likely to work in non-permanent positions than white colleagues (6% vs 3%) – and there is no evidence to suggest the situation is any better for Black females.
Barriers to career progression
Even after finding employment, things are still far from ideal though. Black women experience challenges, which include barriers to career progression, at every level. As Hunter explains:
The tech industry has a retention issue regarding Black women. Sometimes they’re overlooked for promotion without clear guidance as to why, which would indicate a lack of facts behind the decision. But for others, it’s to do with a lack of allyship in the workplace - it can be exhausting having to represent an entire community all the time.
People often say they’re the only Black person, or woman, on the tech team, so they’re constantly having to represent the entire community and battle it alone, which eventually makes them want to leave. It’s not just about being the only one though. Sometimes other team members could be better allies and offer more support too. Also the research shows that only 9% of Black women believe they’re promoted based on individual performance. In other words, while women from other ethnicities are hired and promoted based on potential, Black women are hired and promoted based on skills. So they feel they need more skills and experience than other people and constantly have to prove themselves.
Worryingly, the report also indicates that while representation on the board and at the managerial tier may have improved for Black women - and men - over the last three years, there has been a significant drop in the number of individuals becoming team leaders – a situation that could well have a damaging impact on the talent pipeline in future.
A further concerning trend is the growing number of HR and DEI professionals who are being disproportionately hit by tech industry layoffs. This situation, which is unlikely to be helped by the current recessionary climate, is inevitably leading to DEI strategies being axed or taking a lower profile. As Hunter points out:
It doesn’t bode well when we see people and budgets being cut. There are still companies working on change and dedicated to making it happen, but it’s important more understand the positive impact DEI has on their business and the wider industry. It’s always hard to know what the future will hold but I do feel we’ve been having the same conversations for so long now that it’s difficult to see things being fixed within the next five years.
Although the tech sector is constantly complaining about labour and skills shortages, too many companies continue to ignore the huge potential of so-called ‘non-traditional’ talent pools, which includes Black women.
But it is not enough simply to hire diverse talent in. It is clear that much more attention still needs to be paid to creating inclusive environments where everyone feels welcome, respected and valued. It is also clear that much better support, whether in the form of mentorship, coaching or allyship, needs to be forthcoming in order to provide people with adequate support and ensure they actually want to stay.