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The Diversity Problem in Tech

While America is becoming increasingly diverse, the tech industry is not and more work is needed.

While America is becoming increasingly diverse, the tech industry is not and more work is needed.

America has long prided itself on being a melting pot, made up of many different nationalities, ethnicities, and journeys to make it to the land of the free. Looking at current projections, we can expect our country to grow to be more diverse over time. By 2040, Hispanics alone will represent more than half of the American population, with Hispanics, Asian, Pacific Islanders, and Blacks combining to compose more than three-fourths of the population.

Though America is becoming increasingly diverse, issues regarding the lack of opportunity for our diverse populace remain. Over the past few years, one of the hot button issues pertaining to opportunity in the workforce has been the lack of diversity in Tech. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American labor force is 47% female, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black and 12% Asian. However, in 2011, Blacks represented only 6% of STEM workers and Hispanics 6%. Even more alarming, among 7 Silicon Valley companies that released their employment statistics in 2014, only 2% were Black of and 3% of were Hispanic.

For some Tech companies, the answer to this problem was that there are simply not enough qualified candidates in the applicant pool. However, data shows that this is simply not true. According to data from the Computing Research Association, 4.5% of all new recipients of bachelor’s degrees in computer science or computer engineering from prestigious research universities were African American and 6.5% were Hispanic. Essentially, the elite universities are churning out graduates in this field at twice the rate that top Tech companies are hiring them.

So if the issue here isn’t producing better applicants, then how can we fix the problem of diversity in Tech?

 1. Increase the Applicant Pool.

Although I agree that it isn’t an issue of having better Hispanic and Black applicants, simply creating a larger pool of these applicants will make it virtually impossible not to hire more Hispanic and Black candidates. There are a number of ways that we can work to enhance this pool, but some are already in motion.

One effort that we’ve seen to increase this pool is President Obama’s Educate to Innovate program, which is a nationwide effort that has raised over $700 million to hit major milestones in several priority areas, building a CEO-led coalition to leverage the unique capacities of the private sector, preparing 100,000 new and effective STEM teachers over the next decade, showcasing and bolstering federal investment in STEM, and broadening participation to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool. The last milestone seems the most relevant to our purpose, but in actuality, these issues are all interconnected. Most obviously, training better STEM teachers and bolstering federal funding in the field should help to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool, assuming that these resources will be distributed equally across different communities. Having the commitment of CEOs from major Tech companies would also demonstrate the industry’s commitment to improving diversity, which could result in a broader applicant pool. Although the President taking the lead on this initiative is highly influential, another way to advocate for change would be voicing these concerns to our respective Senators and Representatives. It is our duty to hold elected officials accountable for enacting the change that we, their constituents, desire to see.

In addition to the support of this initiative led by the President, the power of starting companies and organizations dedicated to increasing the pool of talent can not be emphasized enough. One example of a successful organization working in this field is CODE2040, which is a nonprofit that creates programs that increase the representation of Blacks and Latino/as in the innovation economy. Starting by selecting top Black and Latino students as fellows, the program inserts the fellows in a summer accelerator which includes a summer internship program and career building sessions. CODE2040 has been very successful, with their applicant pool increasing to over 1,000 students, and more than 200 companies expressing interest in hosting their fellows for summer internships. With many companies expressing an interest in improving on their diversity, organizations like this present a viable solution for them to easily identify some of the top talent. Having more organizations like this could only be more helpful when seeking to increase the applicant pool.

2. Changing the Narrative.

Although I believe that increasing the applicant pool is the biggest need, both the Tech industry and the underrepresented communities need to work together in order to change that narrative around minorities in Tech. One important way to do this is to increase the visibility of the Tech industry’s prominent minority figures.

In an article with the New York Times, Van Jones, CNN political commentator and founder of #YesWeCode, stated, “A lot of African-Americans want to grow up to be LeBron James, Jay Z or Barack Obama. They don’t hear about David Drummond at Google, who is at the center of one of the biggest companies in the world.” This statement certainly relies on some dangerous stereotypes and overgeneralizations regarding role models in the Black community, but I think that there is value in the basic assumption here. Jones is saying that the youth in these communities are unable to to visualize individuals in this industry that they can aspire to be, largely because the CEOs, CTOs, and General Counsels of color in these companies aren’t placed on the same platform as many of their counterparts. Young Black and Latino youth being able to see the stories of people like them could have an immeasurable impact on their own ambitions and dreams. Not only could they aspire to be the legal counsel of a company like Google, they could also visualize the individual that they hope to be.  

Along with his efforts to increase the talent pool, President Obama was also a driving force behind the “Let Everyone Dream” campaign, which is based on the documentary Underwater Dreams, depicting the story of a group of under-resourced Hispanic high school students taking on a MIT team in an underwater robotics competition. This is a multi- sector coalition that has launched with over $90 million. It focuses on inspiring more under-represented students to succeed in STEM subjects. Some of the commitments of the coalition include investing millions of dollars into a national campaign with the purpose of increasing visibility of Latinas in STEM, committing $15 million to STEM programs for women and underserved minorities, and partnering with top universities to support financial aid, internship, and career readiness programs for first-generation college students, women and minorities.

3. Encouraging Blind Hiring

One of the issues with hiring in Tech are the inherent biases that exist among those in the positions of power. Naturally, we tend to gravitate towards people who look like us, have similar backgrounds, or to whom we have a prior connection. Unfortunately, in an industry that is predominately white, this ultimately has a negative affect on minorities who don’t fall into one of these categories. In an industry that fancies itself as championing principles of a meritocracy, it seems odd that so much of the hiring depends on who you know, as opposed to your own qualifications.

One way to address this issue is encouraging blind hiring in the industry. One Black entrepreneur, Stephanie Lampkin, has already created a mobile app called Blendoor to help with this problem. According to a 2014 research study jointly conducted by Stanford University and the Paris School of Economics, a person’s foreign-sounding name on his or her resume can adversely affect that candidate’s chances of being called for an interview. Lampkin hopes to take the inherent bias out of the hiring process by using Blendoor to hide the candidate’s name and photo from the employer during the initial stages of the recruiting process. Lampkin has already made major headway with her application, being enlisted to help with the likes of Google, LinkedIn, and Microsoft to help with their hiring. There may be an unconscious bias working against minority candidates, but steps are being taken to further level the playing field and solve the issue of diversity in Tech.  

 

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