When Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of the non-profit organization CODE2040 started working on increasing diversity in the U.S. technology sector three years ago, she was often asked “Why are you doing this?” and “Why do we need to do this?”
At the time, the perception within the industry was that tech was a meritocracy. That it didn’t have a diversity problem. But that perception is slowly changing.
The numbers are stark: African Americans and Latinos make up a combined 30 per cent of the U.S. population, but they only account for five to six per cent of big tech workforces, according to John Lyman of Google for Entrepreneurs, one of the speakers at a recent panel on diversity in tech at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. Lyman was joined by representatives of CODE2040, Chicago’s 1871 digital start-up hub and Coalition for Queens.
There aren’t comparable statistics on diversity in Ontario or Canada’s tech sector. According to Ashley Lewis, a new media specialist at Ryerson University and the co-founder of BYTE, a non-profit program exposing children of colour to technology, the fact that diversity in Ontario tech firms is poorly documented is actually part of the problem—not a sign there’s nothing to worry about.
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“From a personal perspective, having worked in technology, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a situation where I was more than the singular person of colour,” she said.
“I have a small network of other people who are working in tech who are of colour as well, and their stories are similar.”
Lewis’ assessment was echoed by Sarah Wolfe. With her mother Helen, Wolfe runs Girls Crack the Code, a volunteer group currently teaching close to 30 girls of colour aged six to 15 about coding and tech. “Anecdotally, we would say the situation is the same if not worse as in the United States,” she said.
Edmund DelSol, president of the Ajax, Ontario, consultancy firm Skillsladder, also attested to the lack of diversity. He rose to the level of director in a telecommunications firm, but he noted that, “As a black person, I was a rarity there. I frequented trade meetings and what was true within my company was generally reflective of the larger field.”
As with the underrepresentation of women in tech companies, both the reasons for the lack of racial diversity and how to fix the problem are matters of debate.
Speakers at South by Southwest referred to “the pipeline problem” – the idea that because of a lack of opportunities at young ages, only a small proportion of African Americans and Latinos actually make it far enough in the education system to qualify for tech jobs.
Weidman Powers acknowledged there’s work to be done around improving opportunities for youth. But she stressed blaming a lack of diversity on “the pipeline” reflects an incomplete understanding of the problem.
“One thing that we know is that every year 18 per cent of computer science degrees go to black and Latino students,” she said. “But we don’t see anywhere near that level of representation when it comes to the kind of the entry-level employees in these large companies.”
“We can’t just wait for that pipeline to change,” said Lyman. “It’s a years-long or decades-long process.”
Based on her experience in the Toronto tech scene, Ashley Lewis said the obstacles to more diversity in tech in Ontario are very similar to those in the U.S. In addition to the issues raised by the panelists in Austin, she cited a male-oriented “brogrammer” culture that isn’t welcoming to women or minorities in most tech firms.
Lewis also pointed to the nature of the start-up firms that are such a big part of the tech ecosystem. Small and new, these organizations often don’t have policies or structures in place to deal with complaints of sexism and racism in the way that large, established organizations do. As a result, people who feel discriminated against don’t know where to turn.
“That’s pretty much the reason why I don’t work in start-ups anymore,” she said.
Edmund DelSol said other issues contribute to the problem as well, from a shortage of mentors in the black community to underfunded schools.
In an education system where resources are stretched, he said, “issues like increased black presence and performance in non-traditional fields, which have never been a central concern, simply remain buried.”
What can be done?
All of the non-profit organizations represented at the South by Southwest panel have programs providing African Americans and Latinos access to training, mentorship and networking opportunities in the technology field.
More broadly, the speakers offered several steps the technology industry – and other industries – can take to help improve diversity.
Key is examining the underlying assumptions embedded in tech hiring processes. According to Weidman Powers, many tech companies rely heavily on referrals to find prospective hires. In fact, in Silicon Valley, tech employees can sometimes get a $10,000 bonus if a candidate they refer gets hired.
“There are a lot of reasons why that makes a lot of sense,” continued Weidman Powers. “You have someone vouching for this person, there’s a track record there. But we also know that white people’s social networks are 91 per cent white. If you’re just hiring out of your social network, you’re probably going to end up in a closed loop.”
Weidman Powers also said that too often the hiring criteria, such as only hiring graduates from certain universities, are not relevant to being able to do the job. Companies need to think more carefully about what skills and abilities they actual want rather than relying on “proxies” that needlessly screen out many talented and qualified individuals.
Google’s Lyman also observed human resources departments in larger companies often see diversity as a priority, but that imperative doesn’t filter down to hiring managers. Lyman said repeatedly reminding managers of a company’s commitment to diversity could help.
In Ontario, people TVO interviewed noted that in addition to fundamental shifts in hiring practices and workplace attitudes, even relatively small steps can make a difference to ensure more diversity in the technology field.
According to Ashley Lewis, something as minor as stating in a job posting that the position is open to people of all backgrounds can dispel some of the doubt diverse applicants have about applications receiving a fair hearing in white-dominated workplaces.
Edmund DelSol said, “On a short term-basis, if businesses do not want to be explicit in designing favourable organizational models for minorities (such as affirmative action programs), they can build up their community outreach and build referral networks to gain exposure to non-traditional groups.
“Even simple acts like holding a major job-fair in a non-traditional location like (Toronto’s) Lawrence Park can signify seriousness about diversity in outreach. However, these actions must be done with authenticity and not be calculated for imagery.”