It’s not just Facebook that has an ethnicity problem

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett November 29, 2018
Candid post published by former employee of the social network is stark reminder that ethnic minorities get a raw deal across the board at work.

Mark Luckie

The lack of support for ethnic minorities within the tech sector has been called into question this week by a frank post penned by a former Facebook employee.

According to Mark S Luckie, “Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users”. The former partnerships manager at the social network decided to go public with a memo of that title, which he had previously sent to Facebook’s global workforce.

In the post, which Luckie distributed shortly before leaving Facebook earlier this month, he outlined some common themes that had emerged from his year working there. These he summarised as “Facebook has a black people problem” – both regarding users of the site, and its own employees. He noted:

Black people are far outpacing other groups on the platform in a slew of engagement metrics [but they] are finding that their attempts to create ‘safe spaces’ on Facebook for conversation among themselves are being derailed by the platform itself.

Non-black people are reporting what are meant to be positive efforts as hate speech, despite them often not violating Facebook’s terms of service. Their content is removed without notice. Accounts are suspended indefinitely. When these rulings are upheld with little recourse, it upends the communities of color Facebook claims to be supporting. It decreases the likelihood that people will continue to engage at the same level on our platform.

Luckie was quick to congratulate Facebook’s efforts to increase the number of black people working at the company – the ratio has grown from two percent of the global workforce in 2016 to four percent in 2018 – but also pointed to the reality gap between diversity across the business and how the firm presents itself to the outside world:

When you interact with people who look like you, it drives retention, forges relationships and increases loyalty to the company. Although incremental changes are being made, the fact remains that the population of Facebook employees doesn’t reflect its most engaged user base. There is often more diversity in Keynote presentations than the teams who present them.

In some buildings, there are more ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters than there are actual black people. Facebook can’t claim that it is connecting communities if those communities aren’t represented proportionately in its staffing.

More worryingly, Luckie went on to disclose examples of frequent racial discrimination at his former employer:

In my time at the company, I’ve heard far too many stories from black employees of a colleague or manager calling them ‘hostile’ or ‘aggressive’ for simply sharing their thoughts in a manner not dissimilar from their non-Black team members.

Too many black employees can recount stories of being aggressively accosted by campus security beyond what was necessary. On a personal note, at least two or three times a day, every day, a colleague at MPK [Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park] will look directly at me and tap or hold their wallet or shove their hands down their pocket to clutch it tightly until I pass. To feel like an oddity at your own place of employment because of the color of your skin while passing posters reminding you to be your authentic self feels in itself inauthentic.

Those turning to Facebook HR for support in these situations are too often turned away with the response that it’s all a figment of their imaginations, Luckie said. However, through conversations with other black employees experiencing the same issues, he came to establish a pattern connected to the culture at the firm.

As a departing gift, Luckie gave a series of recommendations the firm should follow to become inclusive in reality as opposed to paying lip service to diversity. These include implementing data-driven goals to ensure the product is reflective of user demographics; establishing more regular focus groups with underrepresented communities; and not relegating invitations to partners of color to diversity events.

When we asked Facebook for its reaction to Luckie’s post, the firm gave an unsurprisingly bland statement in response:

Over the last few years, we’ve been working diligently to increase the range of perspectives among those who build our products and serve the people who use them throughout the world. The growth in representation of people from more diverse groups, working in many different functions across the company, is a key driver of our ability to succeed.

We want to fully support all employees when there are issues reported and when there may be micro-behaviours that add up. We are going to keep doing all we can to be a truly inclusive company.

Not just a Silicon Valley issue

Response to the post has been overwhelmingly positive, with Facebook commenters thanking Luckie for sharing his experiences and for his support of the black community. There is general consensus that the points raised are indeed an accurate reflection of life at Facebook, and this no doubt is the case among many other organisations and not just in Silicon Valley.

Ashleigh Ainsley, who co-founded colorintech to tackle the lack of diversity in the UK technology sector, said that sadly, experiences such as Luckie’s are no surprise to many ethnic minorities in the technology industry:

Problems of internal isolation, frequent micro-aggressions and cultural bias are common and well reported. The picture can't be much better in senior leadership roles given that lack of representation by ethic minorities at that level in tech companies.

Ainsley views Luckie’s recommendations as good starting points for organisations to consider their own systemic biases:

These ideas aren't rocket science but unfortunately, like the voices of Mark and many others, they have probably been lost in the marginalisation of ethnic minorities in tech.

The UK government is already well aware of the bias against ethnic minorities in the wider workforce, not just technology. In October, Prime Minister Theresa May launched a consultation into whether mandatory reporting of pay based on ethnicity would help improve salary and career prospects for minorities. This could lead to businesses needing to report their ethnicity pay gap in the same way UK firms are now obliged to publish their gender pay gap figures. Launching the consultation, May said:

Every employee deserves the opportunity to progress and fulfil their potential in their chosen field, regardless of which background they are from, but too often ethnic minority employees feel they're hitting a brick wall when it comes to career progression.

Organisations have until January to share their views on what information should be published to allow for decisive action while avoiding undue burdens on companies.

The consultation is a positive sign that the government is starting to get serious about the current poor workplace prospects for ethnic minorities, as evidenced by colorintech’s FTSE Tech Diversity Report 2018.

Delving into the employee makeup and board structures of FTSE 100 firms, the report highlighted that racial diversity in the boardrooms of the UK’s top tech companies is lagging seriously behind the US. In the States, 17 percent of hi-tech leadership positions are held by ethnic minorities, compared to just three percent on UK tech boards.

Of the 152 board positions available across the UK’s top 16 technology companies, only four were held by an ethnic minority person, and only one of these was a woman.

This lack of representation is not due to a pipeline problem either; in fact, more ethnic minority students are taking science, engineering and computing degrees than white students. The problem comes when the former group leave university – ethnic minority graduates are three times less likely to be in full-time work six to 12 months after leaving higher education compared to other students. And if they’re not working in the technology sector, they can’t work their way up to take leadership roles at tech companies. Ainsley says:

All available data suggests this is an issue, so armed with the stark reality of [ethnicity pay gap] data, firms might actually do something about it.

It cannot be right that systematically people with the same experience and skills are paid less for doing the same job for factors related to the colour of their skin. Our fear is if this does not become legislation, then the return to colour-blind approaches will whitewash this topic out of public discourse for another generation.

My take

Another problem for Facebook among all the others. Meanwhile for the wider tech sector, any steps to tackle the lack of ethnic minority representation can’t come soon enough.

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