How Blacks and Latin@s Are Left Out of Tech Hiring

Having more white women attendees at a conference this year than last is hardly diverse, and hardly a reason to celebrate diversity when Blacks and Latin@s still make up only 5% of people in tech.

by Stephanie Morillo on November 19th, 2014

In case you haven’t heard: tech is hiring. A lot. At my job, we have more than three dozen postings for our New York office alone. Every tech newsletter I subscribe to has a job-posting section. Speakers at conferences often fit in a “We’re hiring!” pitch in the intro to their talks, and at every meetup, someone always mentions their company is looking.

Tech companies pride themselves in their growth and ability to attract top “talent”. Yet statistics – or quick searches in the staff directory – show that people of color, specifically Blacks and Latin@s, are not included in the “talent” these companies hire.

Where are people of color in tech, and at what point in the hiring process do applicants of color trail off?

Cognitive Dissonance in Hiring

While online postings and recruiters still exist, scouring the internet and various channels for “talent”, this is the age of referrals and networking. While referrals do not always get you hired, they can, at the very least, get you through the door. Hiring people is an immense undertaking that takes up a lot of time and energy. It’s much easier, and a much more attractive prospect, to hire through referrals than to go through the multiple resumes and cover letters of unknown people with yet unvouched-for skills. (Not that referrals are always about skills. I’ve seen people brought in just because they physically put a resume in front of someone or said, “They love the company, maybe you can interview them?”)

Ivy on a traditional brick building.

Photo CC-BY marc falardeau, cropped and filtered.

Networking and referrals are the products of social capital, which looks vastly different for Blacks and Latin@s, for low-income people, for students who went to a state school versus an Ivy League, for people who weren’t in Greek life in college, etc. For people who want to break into an industry and get their resume in front of a hiring manager, having the qualifications and applying online or through other saturated channels are not enough. This was certainly the case for me. Two years ago, I was unemployed, and I applied for literally hundreds of jobs. Eventually, I was referred to my current job by a friend, a Latino, who’d been hired as a contractor. Yet in my over-a-year here, I can only count two other Latinas, though we’ve grown to over 200 employees. It’s increasingly frustrating and at times, socially isolating.

That’s obviously not to say that companies are deliberately leaving out Blacks and Latin@s in all instances, but without the same networks and the same risk profiles that benefit mostly white people in the tech industry, Blacks and Latin@s are being left out. When pressed, the industry claims that not enough Blacks and Latin@s are interested. Like Google and Twitter, they will share their numbers, acknowledge the dismal percentages of Blacks & Latin@s among their ranks, give lip-service to “diversity”, but they don’t make sweeping changes in hiring practices that inevitably shut out people of color who have no access to the “social capital” that white people entering the tech industry can leverage to get jobs.

Pipeline Problem

Aside from aspiring Black and Latin@ tech professionals, tech’s inability to get people of color within their ranks in proportion to their populations has very real repercussions for younger people of color. No black students sat for the AP Computer Science exam in eleven states in 2013; Latin@s didn’t sit for the exam in eight states. Whether a product of students of color attending schools with a lack of resources and no Computer Science classes, or whether young adults have very few role models they can relate to in the tech industry, the message is loud and clear: they cannot see themselves in the tech industry because the inner workings of the tech industry are not exposed nor accessible to many young Black and Latin@ students.

Students in rows of desks, taking a test.

Photo CC-BY Rune Mathisen (bitjungle), filtered.

But for all of the moaning the industry does regarding the perceived lack of qualified Blacks and Latin@s for highly skilled positions, Black and Latin@ CS students are graduating from top universities at twice the rate of their representation at tech companies. From USA Today: “On average, just 2% of technology workers at seven Silicon Valley companies that have released staffing numbers are black; 3% are Hispanic. But last year, 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…”

In other words, the qualified CS graduates of color tech claims it cannot find not only exist, but are actually being turned down for jobs in the very industry that says it cannot find them. For Blacks and Latin@s with dreams of going into tech and the social mobility it brings, this means that possessing credentials — and the increased networking opportunities that stem from respected CS programs — are not enough to erase the hidden (and not hidden) biases in tech’s hiring practices. The message that this then sends to younger generations of Blacks and Latin@s is clear: you need not apply.

Who Benefits From “Diversity” Initiatives?

I remain ambivalent about diversity initiatives as they are practiced in tech. I’ve recently had the opportunity to attend quite a few conferences via scholarships awarded to underrepresented groups. I’ve been pleased to see special attention paid to diversity, especially to ensuring that underrepresented groups get access to conferences, which is a major way people network & find career opportunities in the tech industry.

A major pain point I have is how, still, few Blacks and Latin@s are in attendance. How I can count the number of Black women and Latinas on my hand. It does nothing to celebrate traffic jams in the women’s restroom during break time – “Finally, there are enough women that we have to wait in line for the bathroom!” – when Blacks and Latin@s are visibly absent. Having more white women attendees at a conference this year than last is hardly diverse, and hardly a reason to celebrate diversity when Blacks and Latin@s, who collectively represent almost 30% of the U.S. population, still make up only 5% of people in tech.

Companies, conference, and other organizations must ask themselves the hard questions. Why didn’t many people of color apply to this posting? Why didn’t we get many people of color applying for scholarships to this conference? Do we offer scholarships to our conference in the first place? How many Blacks and Latin@s have we interviewed for this position or similar positions in the past year? Are we certain that we’re using channels that Blacks and Latin@s have access to in order to advertise this position or scholarship? Are we relying too heavily on referrals that only yield candidates of similar backgrounds?

Future generations of Blacks and Latin@s who could possibly make inroads into tech depend on the industry fixing these issues for professionals of color now. I look forward to the day that I am not the only woman of color anywhere I go, and certainly not the only Latina. I’ve attended three conferences this year; there was another Latina in just one. I’d like conversations of diversity as it relates to Blacks and Latin@s to lead to concerted efforts to reach out to our communities, versus just lazily declaring that we aren’t interested. I’d like for the industry to reach out and listen to us, to do some “user research”, to determine what happens when we do apply for jobs in tech, and how we are kept out of applying in the first place.

Furthermore, I’d like to see more of me in the tech industry within the next year. Because having something to share with someone who has had similar experiences is important, but more importantly, so kids in my Bronx neighborhood know that you don’t have to be an “Einstein-level white boy genius”, that there is a place for them in tech.