Here’s What It’s Like to Be a Person of Color in Technology

Here’s What It’s Like to Be a Person of Color in Technology

“Ever wonder what it’s like to be a person of color in technology and computer science?”

In connection with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, James Mickens—a computer scientist in the Systems group at Microsoft Research—opted to participate in a Reddit AMA in hopes of answering this question.

James Mickens (photo courtesy of MIT CSAIL)
Mickens is also currently teaching at MIT CSAIL as part of the school’s MLK Visiting Scholars program, which is aimed at getting more people of color into academia. Which is clearly a relevant effort, particularly in his specific field: According to GigaOm research, just 4.5 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to black students.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of trolling—not unlike an AMA last year with female MIT computer scientists—from Reddit users who argued that race is irrelevant. But there were also some thought-provoking questions from users, too. With an increasing number of top tech companies revealing their diversity demographics, there’s no doubt that there’s a major disparity in the industry. And the mere fact that Mickens still has to identify himself as a “black computer scientist” shows just how rare such an individual is. But who owns the problem? And how do we go about resolving it?

One user asked for Mickens’ opinion on why such a small number of black people go into computer science, and moreover, how that career path is generally perceived by the black community.

Mickens said he feels computer science and STEM jobs are viewed positively in the black community, but also pointed out that there are a lack of African American role models in this industry to follow—which is discouraging to black kids who might be thinking about a career in technology.

“I think that teachers and professors (often well-intentioned ones!) can implicitly or explicitly discourage ethnic minorities from STEM careers,” he wrote. “There’s also an issue of social capital. 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. 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.”

The value of acceptance

While Mickens stressed that it’s possible for people from underrepresented groups to get into STEM fields, he did note that these individuals need to be more intentional, focused and prepared when attending classes and interviews or networking with peers. And despite the fact that it may be helpful to have a role model who is the same race, Mickens asserted that it’s important to accept mentors who are different.

“If you’re a black female, don’t be afraid to have a white man as a mentor. There may be some cultural misunderstandings, but that’s okay.”
“If you’re a white guy, don’t be afraid to have a female mentor,” he wrote. “If you’re a black female, don’t be afraid to have a white man as a mentor. There may be some cultural misunderstandings, but that’s okay. You’ve got to learn how to deal with those things anyway, so don’t be afraid of it. I can say with total confidence that the extent to which I’ve been successful in my career is the extent to which key mentors have taken a chance on me and put me in positions where I could succeed.”

And while being open minded is certainly an asset, Mickens also emphasized that it’s crucial to maintain a certain confidence in order to gain—and maintain—respect. One user asked if Mickens, as a black person, felt he was under additional scrutiny or pressure to prove himself more in the workplace.

“As a member of an underrepresented group, it can be difficult to be firm without sounding strident, but I do think that it’s important to build a reputation as someone who can’t be pushed around,” he responded.

Back to the drawing board

There’s a wealth of research suggestion that it is, indeed, that much harder for blacks to secure a job in general—let alone in an industry they are less represented in, like computer science. A research paper from The University of Chicago’s Marianne Bertrand and MIT Professor Sendhil Mullainathan (now at Harvard University)—titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?”—suggests a black-sounding name remains an obstacle to getting a job. In fact, after responding to 1,300 classified ads with mock resumes, the authors found that black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to get a call back than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.

In response to the studies that prove this prejudice, one Reddit user asked Mickens what can be done from inside the tech sector to help solve the under-representation of minorities. Mickens argued that simply being aware of these biases can potentially reduce them. He also noted that anonymizing the early hiring process—even simply the resume selection round—can also make a difference in employers’ decision-making. For example, “blind” orchestra auditions improved the gender balance in professional music. Unfortunately, Mickens has yet to see such a technique put to practice in tech.

We need to find new ways to fight biases.
Some studies have shown that such a tactic can have a positive impact. A one-year pilot project launched by the German federal government’s Office Against Discrimination demonstrated that anonymizing this process increased the chances of women and immigrants being asked to interview.

Still, some maintain that this approach could backfire. As certain companies already deliberately hire people with different ethnic backgrounds as a part of their existing diversity strategies, an anonymized application process could have a negative effect.

Regardless, one thing is clear: We need to find new ways to fight biases. Mickens pointed out that it’s easy—and important—for companies aiming to improve their staff diversity to continually benchmark their progress. Because without measuring how effective these efforts are, we aren’t going to get anywhere.


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