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Racial, gender diversity in tech improving at a glacial pace

The tech industry has made some progress in improving gender diversity in recent years, but some populations have been excluded from this progress.

Anyone who has been to a tech conference has seen the imbalance of men vs. women and the disproportionate percentage of white IT pros compared with Black professionals. It's been that way for decades, and the balance hasn't shifted much.

When protests against racial discrimination became more widespread in 2020, many big tech companies were forced to come to terms with the imbalances and pledged to look inward and make big changes.

As a whole, the tech industry has seen some progress in advancing gender diversity in recent years. But for the most part, Black and Latino* people -- and Black women in particular -- have been excluded from this progress, said Cynthia Overton, director of tech workplace initiatives at the Kapor Center, a racial justice organization that works to enhance diversity and inclusion in tech.

Between 2014 and 2020, Black representation at top tech companies increased by only 1%, according to the Kapor Center's analysis of company diversity reports.

"This is devastating when it comes to economic opportunities for Black communities. It also means that tech is missing out on the talent, experience and perspectives from communities of color," she said.

The underrepresentation of Black talent across all levels of the tech ecosystem limits tech companies' ability to produce socially responsible products and services and minimize harm on Black and Latino communities, she said.

Diversity in tech has increased slightly, but minorities represent a small slice of the overall tech workforce
The Kapor Center's analysis of company diversity reports shows the number of Black employees in big tech companies has only increased 1% since 2014.

For example, civil rights advocates sued Facebook for allowing landlords, lenders and employers to use demographics data to exclude minorities from advertisements. Facebook recently overhauled its software to prevent discriminatory advertising practices. Artificial intelligence in finance has led to Black borrowers being assessed as a higher financial risk, resulting in loans at higher interest rates than borrowers with a similar financial history.

And consider this: If an HR software firm that makes recruiting tools to screen and hire job candidates does not employ diverse engineers to build those tools, unconscious biases could be built in, limiting job opportunities for women and racial minorities.

Tech is missing out on the talent, experience and perspectives from communities of color.
Cynthia OvertonDirector of tech workplace initiatives, Kapor Center

A 2020 report on wage inequality from tech hiring website Hired.com found that men get more interviews for tech roles than women. Companies are interviewing only men for open positions 41% of the time and only women 4% of the time -- a figure almost unchanged over the past three years, the data shows.

Bias is a serious problem that creeps into AI models, negatively affecting the enterprises that use artificial intelligence tools. Technology vendors can prevent bias in AI software by hiring diverse employees who can root out clear and unconscious bias.

"Had there been more people of color, people with disabilities and women on engineering teams, the problems we see with these products wouldn't be there," Overton said in an interview.

Making sure technology is developed by diverse employees to support diverse users isn't just good business -- it may become law. Washington state legislators have written a bill proposal to require transparency into how AI algorithms are trained, as well as proof that the algorithms don't discriminate.

In January, Apple launched new projects as part of its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI) to provide opportunities to people of color. The initiatives include the Propel Center, a global innovation and learning hub for historically Black colleges and universities, an Apple Developer Academy to support coding and tech education for students in Detroit, and venture capital funding for "Black and Brown entrepreneurs."

Last year, SAP pledged to look inward and improve diversity within its organizations. Salesforce in November set the admirable goal of not only hiring more diverse workers but also ensuring those employees have a clear path to leadership. The company's diversity goal is to double its U.S. representation of Black leaders at the vice president level and above, and also increase the number of underrepresented minority leaders by 50% by 2023.

Meanwhile, in a lawsuit filed this week, Amazon faces discrimination allegations for mistreating Black employees, keeping them in lower-level roles on longer paths to promotion, and for less pay.

Tech diversity starts with communities

The racial diversity issue in tech has been just as glaring as the lack of gender diversity -- abundantly clear at tech conferences -- and many companies are working to find balance there, too. In the U.K. and Ireland, 67 % of IT workers report that their companies are working to improve gender diversity in IT departments, according to research by Computer Weekly, a TechTarget publication.

The Kapor Center's Overton points to the "leaky tech pipeline" that begins in early childhood education as the root of diversity issues in tech. During her session at the Diversity and Inclusion Research Conference in November, she provided a tale of two students: one, a white male who attends a school with computer labs; the other, a minority female in a school district that lacks tech resources for students. Combine that with low expectations teachers may have for minorities and females to succeed in computer science and the lack of after-school STEM programs in lower-income communities, and it becomes clear why women and minorities are underrepresented in tech.

"Given the minimal progress that tech has made in advancing workforce diversity, I think that there are a lot of other directions that the industry should explore when it comes to creating a workforce that reflects the society in which we live," said Overton, who in February wrote about ways to address racial disparities in tech companies.

Perhaps the gap in STEM opportunities for women and minorities is why Holly Peck, founder of Women Who Code, Vancouver, said she's seeing more nontraditional technologists move into IT.

"The emergence of people interested in building products and tools without a traditional computer science background is a trend I'm seeing," Peck said during a Microsoft Ignite panel discussion on women in technology this week. "Colocated around this is the emergence of bootcamps and engineering fellowships geared toward increasing accessibility of nontraditional engineers into computer science and engineering."

Local community groups like Women Who Code provide technical training, mentorship programs and support to keep women in engineering roles and increase female leadership in the IT industry, she said.

Tech media's role

The tech publishing industry plays an important role in holding companies accountable for their pledges to improve diversity. TechTarget's news team carefully reports stories of minorities in tech who have experienced racism and sexism at tech firms, and we follow tech vendor initiatives to move the IT industry toward equilibrium.

In addition, TechTarget's editorial department has chosen to stop its use of antiquated tech terms such as master/slave. Our editorial staff meets regularly to discuss terminology changes. Tech giants including Microsoft, Oracle and SAP have made these terminology changes in their products as well.

If you have a story to tell, or find terms in our content that we should consider replacing, please let us know. Email [email protected]

Kristina Balaam, senior security intelligence engineer at Lookout, a cybersecurity firm, credits her mentors and the advice they shared over coffee for her position in an area of computer science that has a low percentage of women. Estimates in 2013 showed 11% of cybersecurity pros were female, but the number has increased to 24%, according to the most recent data from ISC2, reported in 2019.

*This article has been updated to specify the populations referenced. An earlier version of the article used the term “people of color” when the specific populations referenced were Black and Latino.

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