Lack of diversity in the tech industry is a long-standing problem that has only marginally improved over the past five years. Take Facebook, for example: Between 2014 and 2019, the social media giant increased its proportion of Black employees from 3% to only 3.8% of its workforce. Other tech companies performed a little better within the same period but, for the most part, managed to hit only single-digit percentage increases — still hardly a point of pride.
I’ve served as the executive director of a nonprofit that offers free training in computer programming since 2015, and I’ve focused much of my energy here on increasing the accessibility of our education. Since the organization’s inception in 2013, we’ve provided free, job-focused education to more than 8,000 learners. Of those students, 43% were women and 42% were people of color. Of 1,368 learners in 2020 alone, 60% were women or non-binary and 49% were people of color. We have made intentional and sustained efforts to create classrooms that reflect the demographics of the communities we serve, and we work to ensure individuals from marginalized communities are set up to succeed in class and in their first tech roles.
Our efforts, however, are not representative of the tech industry at large, and slow progress might lead you to conclude that tech companies aren’t doing enough when it comes to diversity efforts — or worse, are simply paying lip service to diversity while doing little to make a real change. While there might be some validity to these assumptions on a case-by-case basis, the truth is, much like my company, the industry as a whole has been making genuine, sustained efforts to improve workplace diversity.
Unfortunately, what’s become increasingly clear is that this problem doesn’t have one easy, quick fix. As I’ve worked to create more accessible technology education, I’ve realized that the lack of diversity will continue to harm both workers and tech for years to come unless tech companies expand efforts beyond just simple recruitment.
Tech needs a recruiting overhaul
One major problem is that tech companies don’t actually have full control when it comes to determining the makeup of the tech workforce. The talent pipelines themselves have a number of pain points that create obstacles to true employment equity.
For one, a major gap still exists when it comes to female students and students of color being exposed to computer science early in their educations. Only 47% of public high schools teach computer science classes, and more worryingly, the more diverse a school’s student body is, the less likely it is to offer a computer class.
Once you get past early education, there’s still the problem of traditional college and university pathways. These come with high barriers to entry that end up shutting out a wide swath of people who could otherwise have been on their way to flourishing tech careers. It’s an imbalance not only of race but gender. Of those who have four-year computer science degrees, the largest share is white, and only 19% are women.
The good news is that alternative sources are available for learning the requisite tech skills and that the industry has slowly begun to recognize these sources as legitimate avenues for recruitment. But even that’s not without its problems. Coding boot camps have a higher percentage of female graduates at 41%, but they still struggle when it comes to BIPOC students. Black students make up only 6% of graduates, while Hispanic students fare only slightly better at 8%.
What tech companies need to know about the impact of low diversity
Lack of diversity in tech and its associated impact are not new concepts, but tech leaders must begin considering the issue on a systemic level, recognizing their power to influence the world at large.
First, leaders must realize diversity in the tech and innovation space isn’t just about being a good corporate citizen and creating equity within the workplace. Tech companies are creating products and services that are part of people’s daily lives. They’re shaping norms and impacting the public in sometimes imperceptible ways. If the people behind these products are a monolith demographically, culturally and ideologically, then their influence will reflect that narrow viewpoint. You need diverse teams that can create solutions and products for everyone, not just a single group. Simply put, companies with technologists who all look the same will inherently make products for people who look like them and come from similar backgrounds.
Not only that, but the products themselves aren’t as good as they could be. It’s proven that a diversity of ideas, backgrounds, viewpoints and opinions fosters more innovation and stronger teams. That’s not breaking news: A McKinsey & Co. study back in 2015 found that companies with diverse leadership tended to be more successful. Diversity, the researchers noted, “leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.”
But a lack of diversity creates a vicious cycle of diminishing returns. Younger generations consider company values and mission when it comes to choosing where to work, so it’s important that companies focus on creating an inclusive and welcoming culture for all in order to attract the best and brightest talent. Representation, both internally at tech companies and in the wider media, is a big part of that.
However, when people don’t see themselves in your company, they’ll be less likely to want to work there. It can even contribute to people choosing another career path altogether. The lack of diverse representation of technologists in the media, for instance, is proven to affect young girls’ desires to enroll in computer science courses or enter the industry.
So entry-level talent needs to see diverse teams and leaders in the recruitment process, but companies need to first hire diverse entry-level talent to build a leadership pipeline. If that sounds like a bit of a Catch-22, that’s because it is. However, there are ways to navigate this conundrum — and that doesn’t mean tokenizing employees of marginalized identities.
How to encourage diversity from the ground up
Technology leaders must make an intentional effort to create pathways to growth and help individuals from all walks of life advance and grow within their companies.
Identify and eliminate barriers
Recognize the unique barriers that exist for various groups, and break those down. For example, working mothers have unique challenges that often prevent them from moving into leadership positions. How can you help remove those barriers? Maybe your company needs to offer in-office daycare or other support, or it might even be as simple as moving a meeting an hour later so that school drop-off is easier. Remote work is another option that can be very attractive to employees with childcare responsibilities or other care-taking duties.
Elevate diverse voices
Remember that one of the problems with coming up with these types of solutions is that it’s often the old (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender) guard trying to figure out what works best for people of other identities. The result can be solutions that don’t actually work on a practical level. To address this, create platforms for women and people of color to share their voices.
This shouldn’t just be the diversity equivalent of a suggestion box, but it can be done through simple means, such as simply asking pe
ople to be present at meetings or inviting them to the table and asking for their input. It can also be accomplished in bigger ways, like encouraging them to submit a proposal to speak at a conference or to write a post on the company blog.
Whatever your strategy, the key is to create an environment where diverse voices are not only heard but elevated. Combine this with a more inclusive hiring practice that incorporates the unique needs of different demographics, and you can begin to build a better coalition that will improve the health of your company and make it clear that a career in tech is possible for anyone, regardless of their identities or backgrounds.
Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals.
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