Black leaders press tech companies for more diversity in the ranks

Black leaders press tech companies for more diversity in the ranks

When the world’s leading technology firms reported their workforce demographics, the details were uncomfortable, but not surprising: Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants are dominated by men, many of them white.

While company leaders have rushed to rectify their lack of diversity, launching multimillion-dollar initiatives over recent months, a separate push has come from Congress, which this year announced a bipartisan caucus to boost the numbers of women and minorities in tech. A Congressional Black Caucus effort co-chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, is focusing on the dearth of African Americans in technology jobs.

On Tuesday, the caucus’s diversity task force concluded a three-day tour of Silicon Valley, including meetings with representatives of Apple, Google, Intel and Pandora. Among the black congressional group’s goals is ensuring that a growing share of the estimated 1.4 million new tech-industry positions created over the next five years are filled by qualified black applicants. Lee described the meetings, including with Apple CEO Tim Cook, as “productive,” but stressed “there is still a major, major problem.”

A black caucus survey of the top 20 U.S. technology firms found that of the 189 members of corporate boards, only three directors are African American. “African Americans have been, quite frankly, locked out of the tech workforce,” Lee said.

Still, as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, stressed, the caucus traveled to California “to work with the tech companies, not against them.”

Silicon Valley has become a frequent stop for candidates and officeholders looking to raise campaign money and burnish their tech credentials. With Washington increasingly involved in issues that affect technology companies, from immigration to patent reform to so-called net neutrality, the firms’ struggles in diversity have risen to the attention of the White House and bubbled up on the campaign trail. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared at a forum this year centered on making the valley a more inclusive place.

Back in Washington, President Barack Obama on Tuesday hosted an inaugural Demo Day, on which he announced a new initiative of investors, universities and cities to advance diversity in entrepreneurship. Some 40 venture capital firms promised to boost opportunities for underserved minorities. Institutional investors like CalPERS, the state pension fund, committed up to $11 billion in investments for emerging and transitioning managers. Meanwhile, leading tech companies said they would adopt a variation on the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” for coaches, a requirement that they consult a diverse applicant pool for senior executive posts.

The need to change also is playing out on social media, where the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer is spreading quickly across the Web alongside photos of women and other people who have not traditionally been associated with careers in science and coding.

Scrutiny of the tech industry, years in the making, re-emerged when Google last year disclosed the composition of its workforce. Just 2 percent of its overall employees are African American, and its technology positions are 1 percent black, compared with 13 percent of the U.S. population. In early May, Google announced its strategy for diversity, saying it has committed $150 million to diversity in 2015, and had dedicated and spent $115 million in 2014.

Yolanda Mangolini, director of diversity and inclusion at Google, said the company plans to continue its conversations with the black caucus. “We share their commitment to enhancing the diversity of our organization and the tech industry more broadly,” she said.

Pandora, the Internet radio service, whose workforce is 3 percent black, established partnerships with organizations like Management Leadership for Tomorrow, CODE2040 and Year Up, to increase its diversity pipeline and address the leadership divide.

“As a young, fast-growing company, we believe that weaving diversity values into our people practices – hiring, development, and recognition programs – early on, will truly make a positive difference,” Pandora spokeswoman Stephanie Barnes said.

The trends are not unique to large and growing companies. The White House reported that 3 percent of venture-capital-supported startups are led by women, and just 1 percent by African Americans. The number of U.S.-based minority investors is similarly paltry.

Cedric Brown, managing partner at the Oakland-based Kapor Center for Social Impact, working with underrepresented communities, said he hopes the company pledges will continue to receive needed nurturing and updates.

“All of us stand to lose if we don’t tap into the talent that we have here,” he said in a phone interview.

Indeed, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, chairman of the black caucus, said the companies he met with acknowledged they must do a better job of recruiting African Americans. Specifically, he said Apple’s Cook “recognized immediately what we were saying, and he recognized the correlation between profits and corporate success and the degree of diversity and inclusion within the company.”

In the U.S., Apple’s overall workforce is 7 percent African American, and its technology ranks are 6 percent black.

Butterfield, a Democrat from North Carolina, said tech companies collectively must change their culture to better reflect the rest of society. Many believe that can start with more educational opportunities in the sciences and other job-readiness training.

Mimi Fox Melton, of CODE2040, works to create access, awareness and opportunities for top black and Latino engineers. The group wants to reform the interview process at companies, and is working with them to overhaul everything from recruiting to job descriptions. While blacks and Latinos are passing technical job assessments, they often don’t have the interview or résumé-writing skills to make an impression and land the job, she said.

“The interview process in many of these companies is broken,” she said.

James Mickens, a computer scientist who spent six years at Microsoft Research, believes there are several reasons why so few blacks go into computer science. Though science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs are viewed positively by African Americans, Mickens said in a reddit discussion this year, the lack of African American role models is discouraging to black students who might be thinking about a career in technology. There’s also an issue of social capital, he told the forum.

“A lot of stuff gets done in this world via social connections – you know a person who knows a person who helps you to get a job, or a conversation with an important person,” said Mickens, now an associate professor at Harvard University. “If you’re the first person in your family to go to college, or you’re the first person to enter a STEM field, or if you went to a school whose alumni aren’t well-connected to important social networks, it can be more difficult for you to achieve some of your career goals.”

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