Big tech companies have frequently been making headlines over recent years for their consistent lack of diversity, despite repeated promises to do the opposite. Bloomberg Businessweek last week published an article called “Why Doesn’t Silicon Valley Hire Black Coders” that shines further light on the continued lack of minorities in the tech industry.
The article describes the efforts or lack thereof by tech giants to recruit students from Howard University, a historically Black university located in Washington, D.C. According to its college scorecard, 94 percent of Howard’s undergraduate students are Black, 3 percent are non-resident alien, 2 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native, 1 percent are white, 1 percent are Asian and less than 1 percent are both Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic. 45 percent of students receive a need-based Pell Grant.
The dismal statistics regarding minorities at tech companies have put pressure on these companies to make changes. But diversity reports released from Facebook and Google last year revealed that neither company made progress in achieving a more diverse workforce.
According to Facebook’s report, whites make up the majority of its overall workforce at 55 percent. The company is 36 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent two or more races, and 2 percent Black. When it comes to tech positions, employees are 51 percent white, 43 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent two or more races, and 1 percent Black. The 2014 report for tech positions is almost identical, with no increase in Blacks or Hispanics.
Meanwhile, Google’s numbers fare even worse. Overall, Google is 60 percent white, 31 percent Asian, 3 percent two or more races, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Black and less than 1 percent other. For tech jobs, the workforce is 59 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 3 percent two or more races, 2 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Black and less than 1 percent other. In 2014, Google’s overall workforce, like Facebook’s, saw no change in the percent of Blacks and Hispanics.
Twitter has the same problem as its fellow tech companies and garnered backlash in November following a series of layoffs that people believed disproportionately targeted minorities, who were already underrepresented in the company to begin with. Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote a letter to Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, expressing his concern that the layoffs were racially motivated.
“Twitter already has an appallingly low number and percentage of African Americans and Latinos working at your company, around 60 total in the workforce and zero in your boardroom and c-suite leadership,” Jackson wrote. “We are concerned that a disproportionate number and percentage of Blacks and Latinos were adversely affected in your recent layoffs.”
Indeed, according to a blog post on the company’s website in August (ironically titled “We’re committing to a more diverse Twitter”), its overall workforce is not diverse but is 59 percent white, 31 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent two or more races, 2 percent Black and less than 1 percent both American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The statistics for tech jobs are nearly identical: employees are 56 percent white, 37 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent two or more races, 1 percent Black and less than 1 percent both American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
But a 2014 USA Today analysis revealed that the percent of Blacks receiving computer science degrees is double that of the rate they’re being hired. So why are companies not hiring the talent
Lenard Burge, head of the computer science department at Howard, put it best: “They want to do these things, but nobody is making the solid commitments.”
According to Bloomberg Business, one problem lies in the unchanged way these companies recruit. Despite Howard’s impressive list of prominent graduates (including Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison and Taraji P. Henson), “it’s not among the elite science-orientated universities where tech companies have focused recruitment places like Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon.”
But the schools considered elite for computer science positions do not have high populations of Black students. Stanford’s undergraduate student body is only 6 percent Black, MIT’s is less than 1 percent and Carnegie Mellon’s is 5 percent. So the likelihood of recruiting Black students pursuing computer science degrees from such a small talent pool is unlikely.
Another issue is that students pursuing computer science at historically Black colleges have not been exposed to the field prior to attending college: “Silicon Valley is rife with Stanford and MIT graduates who started college during childhood, won programming competitions in their spare time, and spent their summers interning at startups. At Howard, few of [Charles] Pratt’s students fit that profile. They’d begun studying computer science in college, and many had never visited the Bay Area. Once senior, Sarah Jones, says she’d assumed for years that Silicon Valley was the name of a city. [Jones said,] ‘There are not a lot of people of color in the Valley and that, by itself, makes it kind of unwelcoming.”
Charles Pratt is a former Google employee who went to Howard University in 2013 to recruit students for jobs and internships. He also began teaching classes to try and bring the students up to the same speed as students from other schools who already had more exposure to computer science. According to Pratt, one significant difference between students from Howard and students being recruited from other schools was that they didn’t receive the same hands-on teaching. In addition, Pratt noted the outdated curriculum professors taught from. “I’d ask faculty members, ‘Why are you teaching this course that way’ And they’d say, ‘Well, I’ve been teaching the course for 25 years,'” he explained. So Pratt gave special projects to his students that focused on practicality rather than theory.
According to the article, Pratt admits that “it’ll take years for Burge’s program to start training students at the level of Silicon Valley’s top feeder schools. [But] he wonders if companies were letting some of his former students slip through the cracks partly because of unconscious racial biases.”
In summary, according to the article, the reasons companies have a hard time recruiting Black students are varied: “People tend to discuss Silicon Valley’s diversity problem in binary terms. One camp says companies are biased against underrepresented minorities, or at least aren’t trying hard enough to attract them. The other says there aren’t enough people from these backgrounds who are qualified for positions or at least who are good enough to beat those Stanford grads with all the programming trophies and internship experience and Mozart-like childhoods. The reality is, both are true.” But ultimately, if tech companies are serious in making diversity a priority, it is up to them to recruit from all available talent pools, rather than the same places they’ve been recruiting from in the past.