Why Fixes To Tech's Diversity Problem Fail

Encouraging children to pursue careers in technology is great, but until Silicon Valley deals with its culture problem, it won't matter.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

October 23, 2015

5 Min Read
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10 Trailblazing Companies For Women In IT

10 Trailblazing Companies For Women In IT

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Facebook's new diversity program called TechPrep shows yet again that Silicon Valley is unwilling to look at itself in the mirror and fix the real problem behind the lack of diversity in IT.

The program, like many others, is designed to "inspire" more participation of minority groups in computer science. What is different with Facebook's effort is that it is going after parents, too. According to research from McKinsey cited by Facebook, 77% of parents say they do not know how to help their child pursue computer science, so TechPrep's focus on parents makes sense. It also appears to be a different strategy than most of the countless other programs sponsored by tech companies.

However, the real problem isn't about inspiring minority children; the issue lies within the companies themselves. They don't hire enough minorities. When they do, those minorities, especially women, don't feel comfortable in the culture created by those companies.

The numbers tell the story. In 2012, 9% of college degrees in computer science were given to African Americans, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. The survey also found in the same year that another 9% of college degrees in computer science were given to Hispanics.

However, only 2% of tech workers at seven Silicon Valley companies that released staffing numbers are African American, and only 3% are Hispanic, according to USA Today.

Even when you narrow the field to graduates of "prestigious research universities," a disparity still exists.

Last year, 4.5% of all new recipients of bachelor's degrees in computer science or computer engineering from top research universities were African American and 6.5% were Hispanic, according to a USA Today report that cited data from the Computing Research Association's annual Taulbee Survey, which included 179 US and Canadian universities.

It doesn't add up. More African Americans and Hispanics are inspired to take degrees in computer science than are working in the field.

The same types of problems exist for women. From 2000 to 2012 there was a 64% decline in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science, according to the National Center for Women and IT. But that's only half the problem.

The other half of the problem is that the women that IT does attract tend to leave. Women are 45% more likely to leave IT than men, according to a 2014 study from the Center for Talent Innovation.

Also at odds with recruiting efforts are changing demographics of the tech industry hubs -- including the San Francisco Bay area. The tech boom and resulting spike in housing prices have forced many, including minorities, out of their homes and, in some cases, out of the area.

For example, the African American population of San Francisco has dropped from over 60,000 in 2000 to 48,000 in 2013. During the same time frame, the entire population of the city increased from 776,700 to 817,500, according to the US Census Bureau.

In the historically Hispanic neighborhood of San Francisco's Mission District, which has been popular among tech workers, the Latino population was 30,000 in 2000, but in 2013 that number fell to 21,893, according to a study by the Mission Economic Development Agency and the Council of Community Housing Organizations.

Tech companies "bring their people in, eat up the housing, and in the midst of all of that they just scatter African Americans," said Frederick Jordan, president of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce, in an International Business Times report.

Whether that's a universal feeling is up for debate, but there is no denying that there is a decline in the minority population in San Francisco and other cities around Silicon Valley. Oakland, Calif., lost 25% of its African American population in only the last 10 years, according to census data.

The displacement is a symptom of a larger problem. If there were more opportunities to be hired and to thrive in those tech centers, things might be different. Of course, there are other economic factors at play in the shifting demographics of tech-heavy regions. But, clearly, Silicon Valley companies are not charging ahead in recruiting minority CS graduates, either.

[Can the trend be reversed? Read Women in IT: Is There an Exodus in Progress?]

While inspiring the next generation is great, tech's diversity problem will continue if recruits are not happy once they get through the door. In 1984, the portion of women earning CS degrees reached its peak at 37%, according to The Washington Post. However, over the next two decades women left the field in droves, and by 2006 the percentage of women in CS dropped to 20%, said the report.

Clearly, there needs to be an effort to build a culture of acceptance, opportunity, equality, and continued inspiration if the talent attracted is to stay. 

Instead of focusing on inspiring minorities and women to get into tech, maybe Facebook and others in Silicon Valley should spend more effort to keep the minorities and women they have. Then perhaps the next generation will have role models to look up to and learn from, and it would be easier to inspire the generation after that.

Of course, changing the culture within tech companies is much harder than dropping millions of dollars on outreach programs to "inspire" minorities and women. I hope I'm wrong, but these types of programs do nothing to inspire the real change that needs to take place.

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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