Diversity in Tech Remains Elusive Due to Racism, Lack of Representation and Cultural Differences

"...you see it within the first two years in the tech world that you’re just being consumed as a pillar of knowledge instead of a pillar of greatness."

by Danielle S. Reed on December 13th, 2016

Although Black and Latino students earn about 20% of computer science degrees, they make up only 9% of the tech industry and a dismal 1% of tech company founders, according to Laura Weidman Powers in a USA TODAY article published for Black History Month early this year.

“The inferiority complex is inherent, like you can’t get rid of that feeling especially when you see no one else like you. Even if no one openly comes up to you and says you don’t belong here, you can see that you don’t, not that you don’t belong, but that there’s no one else like you there,” explained Syracuse University alumnus Brittany Moore.

Headshot of Brittany Moore.

Brittany Moore.

Today Moore is a Client Technical Specialist for IBM, but her experience as the only African American and only woman Communication and Information Management double major in her senior-level Advanced Computer Networking class in 2014, revealed the sad reality about her beloved field: It still lacks diversity despite years of efforts by professionals of color, organizations and initiatives to increase the number of women and minorities in the industry.

One such organization is SugarGamers. Keisha Howard founded SugarGamers in 2009, originally as a women-oriented gaming community and tech advocacy group. Today, seven years later, it is open to all as a technology advocacy organization that focuses on diversifying the gaming industry and uplifting women in the space. “I think that the shift has happened. The conversation [about diversity] has become so prevalent on social media, with social media becoming so popular and everybody using it, everybody can be vocal about what the problems are, but the solutions are a little bit more complex,” she said.

Photo of Keisha Howard.

Keisha Howard.

Hailing from Chicago, Howard has over 14 years of experience in the real estate industry, and blames lack of representation of people and women of color in technology as a reason she didn’t pursue those opportunities earlier in life: “Sometimes I wonder when I was younger, if I had seen myself represented in the tech field, maybe the thought would have occurred to me much sooner that I could have a place in the tech industry.”

According to 2016 government files, an overwhelming 88 of the 107 executives at Apple are white men. Only 20 executives are women. 14 of the executives are Asian, while only five are members from underrepresented minority groups. The numbers for 2015 were similar. At Microsoft, the number of women in the company dropped for the second year straight, and the number of Black and Latino employees increased only slightly from last year. Recode published data about the demographics of the two companies in an article about the slow goings of diversity in technology last month.

“If you’re an educated Black male or educated Hispanic, it’s a little bit harder for you because they’d rather nibble off of your knowledge than put you in the right position,” said Apple employee Brandon Gilbert. “I feel like that’s why diversity in tech is very awkward.”

Brandon Gilbert standing in a walkway between buildings. He is wearing a green jacket with roses on it and a baseball cap.

Brandon Gilbert.

Gilbert is a Retail Specialist in the largest Apple retail store on the West Coast. He has worked for Apple for five years but has not been allowed to reach his full potential in the company due to what he sees as a cultural and generational gap. “I was trying to be a leader at Apple, but they kept compressing me for some reason. Now I don’t even go for it anymore, and it’s very awkward because I’m sitting in a room full of white dudes who don’t have a way of elevating themselves without my knowledge.”

The disk jockey and Lyft driver by night explained that since the passing of innovator Steve Jobs, older gentlemen at Apple don’t really know what’s going to happen next with technology. Gilbert also understands why Black men specifically have been leaving tech and have a lower retention rate in tech companies: “Unless you have the patience to ride the wave, you’re going to end up ejecting yourself from it so you can figure out your own destiny, because you see it within the first two years in the tech world that you’re just being consumed as a pillar of knowledge instead of a pillar of greatness. They’re only using your knowledge and not your arms, legs, hands. They only want your brain.”

Both Moore and Howard agree that inherent racism is the root cause of the problem and reason why hiring disparities in tech companies are so wide. “My friend doesn’t work on the tech side, but she works at Google,” said Moore. “And Google has this Black group or club for like meetings and things like that and this Hispanic guy got up and said ‘When I’m in the micro kitchens, random white people come up to me and say, ‘Hey can you refill the apples?’ or ‘Hey we’re out of oranges,’ automatically thinking I’m the janitorial staff.’”

This is an example of the microaggressions and stereotypes that professionals of color in all industries are liable to experience, but in the tech sphere, white homogenous friend groups, networks, and limited understanding, interaction, and value of Black and Brown people results in racially discriminatory hiring practices and cultural misunderstandings.

“Racism starts with the management because they didn’t hang around enough Black people, or around enough Hispanics, or around enough Asians to understand the mannerisms of a certain individual,” said Gilbert, who is currently in school studying application development.

As a self-proclaimed Black “nerd” and active social media user, Moore also cites cultural differences as one of the main reasons tech companies don’t hire more people from underrepresented minorities groups. She herself remembers laughing awkwardly alongside white college peers and classmates to jokes she didn’t necessarily find funny due to cultural differences in social cues and communications styles: “If you weren’t friends with a Black woman in your class partly because there were no Black women in your class or partly because your interests, maybe her interests aren’t the same, if you’re not even friends with those people, you’re definitely not going to start a business with those people. You’re not going to think about those people when you’re creating your technology.”

The differences Moore referenced come into play in daily work-life situations that – regardless of intentions – embrace harmful and racist stereotypes. “If anything, it made me work harder because I felt like I was behind or felt I had something to prove,” said Moore. “I ended up getting an A in that class and doing better than the white males next to me who have all this experience and are geeky and techy. I mean I think there’s definitely that stereotype, but once you get into the technology itself, that’s what I really do love and enjoy learning about.”

There is hope: Mentoring and representation of women and people of color in executive-level positions are what Moore says her company is doing right. Moore can’t even count on two hands the number of co-workers of color she has, although she is still the only Black woman on her department team. Howard, who now specializes in digital marketing strategy and community management, advocates for diversity not for social impact, but because it’s a smart business practice: “When you have a lot of different perspectives with different experiences from different walks of life, you’re able to take from that and make a universally appealing product. And at the end of the day, that’s fiscally responsible because you want to sell whatever you’re selling to as many people as possible.”

There is also hope in the fact that Black millennials continue to dominate the internet, social media, and its new marketing and entrepreneurial spaces, as evidenced by this 2016 Nielsen data report. Moore and Howard both intend to throw their hats into the ring one day, following suit with the 1.3 million other Black women currently in control of their own companies in the U.S.

Let’s hope that even if the industry doesn’t give them a chance, we do.