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November 18, 2020updated 02 Mar 2021 3:51pm

Black representation in tech: What the figures don’t tell us

"The statistics show there are not many black people in tech but they don’t say why, and that's the important thing..."

By Cristina Lago

Like many industries, the tech sector still has some way to go in addressing diversity issues. American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson has for decades been calling out Silicon Valley over its lack of racial diversity, not just in its core workforce and hiring, but among executives and board level.

However, it was not until 2014 that four of the Big Tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) began publishing diversity reports. The results? What many people knew well by then: Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly white and male.

Six years on, and the progress made on black inclusion has been minimal. Whereas the 6% figure of black tech workers in Apple’s headquarters has not improved, Facebook, Google and Microsoft achieved an extra 1%.

Amazon, on the other hand, has not produced diversity reports of its tech business. The most recent statistics from its whole US workforce show that while 26.5% define themselves as black or African-American, the number drops to 8.3% when occupying managerial positions.

This reflects a wider trend of black Americans who, despite getting advanced degrees and entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before, are still not being proportionally represented at leadership level, let alone the C-suite.

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In the UK, accurate data is even more difficult to get, as black representation numbers are usually grouped under the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) label – a highly problematic term rejected by many black and non-white people and which once again demonstrates the scope of white domination within the diversity discourse.

The BAME label can be particularly misleading in tech, where Asian (a very wide demographic group itself) workers are over-represented in the industry. In the UK, for instance, they make up 17% of the tech workforce. However, their demographic representation across England and Wales is 7.5%.

What the statistics don’t show us

This is not just a numbers problem.

The main issue with diversity reports and representation statistics is that they only present a superficial picture of a complex situation. They don’t address the underlying structural racism and inequalities preventing black candidates from reaching top positions or simply retaining a good job in tech.

Trying to fix the problem by simply improving the percentages of black workers in tech without re-examining internal practices, culture and policies can result in workplaces that might be diverse – but not inclusive or equitable.

“We talk a lot about the statistics, but they don’t tell us much. The statistics show there are not many black people in tech but they don’t say why, and that’s the important thing,” says Dorothy Monekosso, professor of computer science in the School of Arts, Engineering and Technology at Leeds Beckett University.

Statistics are only as good as the story behind them, she adds, as every person can interpret the numbers through their own biases or ideologies.

Wells Fargo CEO, Charles Scharf, recently caused outrage by claiming that the bank finds it difficult to reach diversity goals because there is a “limited pool of black talent” to choose from.

Talking from her own experience as a black woman in technology, Professor Monekosso explains that the low levels of black (and female) representation in the industry have little to do with lack of talent available but more with the fact that it is a hostile industry still widely dominated by white men.

I entered engineering not because I was encouraged – on the contrary,” she says. “I often joke and now I say that I was genetically engineered to be an engineer: it’s a passion. I think that explains why I’ve stayed so long, because the journey has been not easy – and that’s an understatement.”

From colleagues turning their backs on to her during sessions to being excluded from email lists calling for meetings (and then being incriminated for not attending), Professor Monekosso says that the situation only gets worse when gaining seniority.

At one point, she received a text message saying: “This is a boy’s club: cut your losses and leave.” When she reported the message to her head of department, instead of taking action, he told her that until she arrived, “everything was nice and peaceful”.

“That’s telling me, ‘you have a problem; you are different’,’’ Professor Monekosso tells Tech Monitor.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that black workers in tech and other industries keep leaving their jobs and, in many cases, start their own businesses.

Unless the leadership of organisations take a firm stance to eradicate racism and make a case for real diversity, equity and inclusion, improving the numbers of black employees alone seems a futile effort that can only take a toll on black people’s well-being and mental health.

“Most who go through these experiences don’t want to talk about it because it’s so far-fetched that you think, ‘how can I start talking about it?’ People are going to think you’re so angry. And the reason that I finally decided I could start talking about it is because I’ve achieved so much. No one can deny now that I’m a good engineer,” says Professor Monekosso.

Why the role of the leadership is important

This is where role models and a leadership committed inclusion and equity values play a fundamental role within organisations that want real change. And this is also where CIOs and other tech executives can step in and make a difference.

Although Big Tech companies and others across the US and beyond rushed to produce solidarity statements in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the police in May, what people are asking for is concrete action – and less words.

“Statements, calls to action and new initiatives to address racial injustice are welcome steps, but common to all the declarations is the need for a deeper reflection, and to take time to carefully re-examine the views and actions both of the past and within the current context,” says Kevin Antao, CIO at Amnesty International.

“Whilst the moment to speak up and take action holds real hope, understanding the issues and problems and finding meaningful solutions will take considerable sustained effort and time.”

In most cases, for these actions to be meaningful they need proper budgeting and financial backing – otherwise, how can the ethnicity pay gap be bridged? They also need genuine engagement from non-black allies who can acknowledge that this problem is deep-rooted and has its roots deep down in racism.

But Shereen Daniels, advocate against racial injustice in business, vice-chair of the black business association for London Chamber of Commerce & Industry and founder and MD of HR rewired, warns that before addressing this from a business angle, leaders need to reflect first as individuals and human beings.

“I’ve seen the most progressive CEOs embrace and lean into the uncomfortable conversations about race and inequalities within their business. They started with themselves first. Acknowledging they don’t have all the answers, thinking about their biases and assumptions and showing vulnerability and a willingness to have the conversation,” Daniels tells Tech Monitor.

“Forget about your job title and examine your values before anything else. Your executive leadership team and your people will take their cues from you.”

From all her years of experience and the times she has dealt with good and bad management, Professor Monekosso advises leaders to, first of all, listen and provide people with safe spaces where they can talk and open up.

“People who are real leaders and are doing something don’t wait for Black Lives Matter. Real leaders are quietly doing small things, little by little. And those affected notice a difference.”

(Main photo by Angelina Bambina / Shutterstock)

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