The politics of diversity in tech, 2016 - the black perspective

Gail Moody-Byrd Profile picture for user Gail Moody-Byrd April 12, 2016
Gail Moody takes on the thorny topic of race in the workplace, locating it in the technology industry of America where it arguably has its greatest problems.

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It’s the season when politics is the water cooler topic if you care about the US's future and dare to speak about it.  Core to this political disruption and revolution we’re witnessing is the inability of many Americans to find employment in the new world order driven by “knowledge workers.”  Which leads me to the topic of diversity in tech.

From my perspective, systematic exclusion of Black people from workplace opportunities is hardwired in our society, despite the illusion of progess. One path past the racial divide crippling the U.S. is for employers to be as inclusive as possible, to include us in one of the fastest growing and best paying sectors of the U.S. economy – technology. It’s aptly stated by a veteran black tech entrepreneur in a 2015 article on 

The problem is, the innovation economy is the economy. If all the significant growth that we expect going forward is coming from fields in which vast blocks of people have no participation or engagement, then we are heading for trouble.

Of course inclusion should be based on rock-solid hiring criteria, to avoid any accusations of 'unfair advantage.' In this post, I’ll share my ‘inside baseball” view as one black person employed in Silicon Valley tech for 15 years. Some of it may not be politically correct. I write this to inform my many, good non-Black friends in tech, who live in the U.S. and elsewhere who have good intentions, but are unaware of this POV on the diversity dialogue.

Why focus on diversity from a black perspective?

Despite talking about solutions for 50 years, racial bias is alive and well, though commonly unconscious in nature today. Unconscious bias is more damaging than intentional discrimination because it’s subtle, thus much harder to call out and address.  When it is confronted, things can change. Nicholas Kristof says in the New York Times:

…when we humans realize our biases, we can adjust and act in ways that are more fair. As the study’s authors put it, “Awareness reduces racial bias.

The pervasive approach to solving the diversity problem in tech is to address the “pipeline problem” by exposing high school and college students to STEM. This approach, which does feed the pipeline with young people in entry-level roles, masks a large problem at the top of the tech pyramid – that mid-to-senior level Black executives are underrepresented in leadership roles in tech.  This is the place that unconscious biases, largely stated in ambiguous “behavior” terms, limit the upward mobility of Blacks in tech organizations.

Why do I focus on the situation Blacks in tech experience instead of the broader question of diversity and inclusion for women and other minorities? Because “each type of exclusion has its own dimensions; Black men and Black women issue is more acute”. Note the column below for Black employment in tech in 2015 compared that of other races (largely 1%).

race in tech

Mother Jones, in an article in July 2015’s issue, says:

We already knew that Google, Facebook, and Twitter employed relatively few African Americans, but new details show that the gap is truly striking. All three companies have disclosed their full EEO1 reports, detailed accounts of their employees' race and gender demographics that the law requires them to submit to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The reports show that out of a combined 41,000 Twitter, Facebook, and Google employees, only 758, or 1.8 percent, are black. To put this in perspective, all of those workers could fit onto a single Airbus A380. Have a look: 

race in tech 2

(My note: Yes, these numbers are accurate. I was stunned so Google’d them.)

Voices from the real world

There’s an abundance of commentary online about tech companies and diversity from a Black perspective. My only challenge was deciding which ones to cite in this post. I’ll share a few quotes about being Black in tech from 2015 that drew allot of attention.

The first is from a Black woman who worked at Google, now an engineer at Slack, Erica Joy (@ericajoy), whose story got lots of media coverage in 2014/2015:

…I identified exactly what effect being a black woman in tech, being the outlier for 13 years, has had on me. For those who like bullet points, I’ll provide those here (paraphrased with my selected excerpts):

  • I feel alone every day I come to work, despite being surrounded by people, which results in feelings of isolation.
  • I am constantly making micro-evaluations about whether or not my actions will be attributed to my being “different.”
  • I feel like my presence makes others uncomfortable so I try to make them feel comfortable.
  • I feel like there isn’t anyone who can identify with my story, so I don’t tell it.
  • I feel like I have to walk a tightrope to avoid reinforcing stereotypes while still being heard.
  • I have to navigate the expectation of stereotypical behavior and disappointment when it doesn’t happen (e.g. my not being the “sassy black woman”).
  • I feel a constant low level of stress every day, just by virtue of existing in my environment.

A second prominent story was a two-part post on Medium from a former VP of Engineering at Twitter, Leslie Smiley (profiled here by CNN Money), which was widely covered in the Twitterverse and mainstream media:

…The recent comments from Microsoft’s CEO @satyanadella, “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” was as striking as it was telling. The system I believe he is referring to is the meritocracy that most of the companies I have worked at pitch to their current and potential employees. And for people like Satya Nadella, the meritocracy exists. However it does not exists for traditional U.S. minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics.

Me? I wasn’t surprised to hear Satya Nadella’s comments at all.  During my career, I’ve had a manager use strikingly similar words with me as I tried to advocate for my advancement.

More from the ex-VP of Engineering at Twitter:

Is a prerequisite to working in tech as a minority that one is expected to, in the eyes of the majority, sublimate your racial identity to ensure a cultural fit? In attempting to achieve the appropriate level of blackness that makes me palatable to tech, had I unwittingly erased the importance of maintaining my blackness in a sea of white faces?

For some at Twitter, diversity is an obstruction to avoid. With my departure, Twitter no longer has any managers, directors, or VP’s of color in engineering or product management. From this position, Twitter may find it difficult to make the changes to culture and product.

Let’s go one level deeper, to the black and female issue. Diversity in tech has come to mean advancement for white women, which in practice, is different, aptly stated by Megan Antcil, Black engineer at Slack:

There are definitely issues that, as a woman, regardless of my color, I'm going to face discrimination for, whether it's family and children or something else. At the same time, there are separate problems that I face as a woman of color, and it's important for white women to acknowledge that just solving our allied interests doesn't mean I am happy. There are separate things that need to be worked on for me that can't be fixed by this other thing.

Indeed, growing organizations like the Hidden Genius Project, Black Girls Code and Hack the Hood are doing amazing work preparing Black students to enter the tech workforce – or, more boldly, start their own companies. But these highly regarded, well-supported organizations address the shortage of minority workers about to enter the workforce, not those currently working seeking to advance.

Why it matters

We need solutions. What to do? Three suggestions:

  • increase the visibility of the viewpoint of people like me having these experiences in tech. That’s why I’m writing this. It avoids hearing the “..but I thought we were well on our way to solving that...” response that all the media coverage might imply - from people who live outside the bull’s-eye.
  • Keep fighting the fight at the individual level for those of us who are inclined to speak out. And, importantly, deliver outstanding results (“be twice as good to achieve half as much” is a common saying in the Black community)
  • Move towards self-empowerment - choose the route of owning the company you work for and encourage our kids to do so. Entrepreneurship provides a sense of self-determination that fighting to advance within a corporation doesn’t.

Thanks for reading this story all the way through. I have an opinion that comes from a very personal place. Why?

While moving my mother last year, I happened upon a file belonging to my late father. It contained a series of letters he’d written from 1963 to 1969 regarding discrimination against him as a black man as he sought a promotion to supervisor with the U.S. Postal Service:

It has been common knowledge in this office that black employees had little to no chance for advancement and only in the last few years has there been any effort made towards tokenism.

He was brave and articulate in stating the facts and making the case for his promotion, which he got after 6 years of being denied, time after time. I owe it to him to keep speaking out, acting out, to never acquiesce, as long as barriers to diversity exist.

Image credit - In story images as noted by sources

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