By Haley DeLeon
The high tech sector has transformed the nation’s economy, driving innovation and fueling job growth from Silicon Valley to Wall Street.
But when it comes to the diversity of the workers in those high-paying jobs, technology giants are lagging in the slow lane or, in some cases, falling further behind, according to a new government report.
“Despite rapid transformation in the field, the overwhelming dominance of white men in the industries and occupations associated with technology has remained,” noted the Diversity in High Tech report, which was released in May 2016 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “This tendency includes occupations requiring less education than a four-year bachelor’s degree.”
Although the high tech sector only employs about 5% of the U.S. workforce, it accounts for about 25% of professional positions nationwide. However, African-Americans, Hispanics and women are significantly underrepresented compared with their presence in the overall labor force.
At higher rungs on the Silicon Valley corporate ladder, the disparity is even greater, the EEOC reported.
Citing data collected from employers in 2014, the report found “stark” differences, including:
- African-Americans accounted for 14.4% of workers in private industry but only 7.4% of the high tech workforce.
- Similarly, Hispanics represented 13.9% of private sector workers compared to 8% of Silicon Valley employees.
- Women, meanwhile, held about 1 in 3 jobs in high tech but nearly 1 in 2 jobs in the overall private sector.
In contrast, Asian-Americans were employed at more than twice the rate in high tech compared to the overall private sector (14% versus 5.8%).
“Ensuring a sufficient supply of workers with the appropriate skills and credentials and addressing the lack of diversity among high tech workers have become central public policy concerns,” the EEOC reported.
Bucking a Historical Trend
This lack of diversity predates the dawn of smartphones, search engines and social media networks. Historically, the number of women employed in computer science and information technology has been low, despite their pioneering roles in these fields. Other minority groups also have struggled to break into an industry that is seen by many as the techie version of the old-boy network.
So why does there seem to be a better chance of spotting a flip-phone at a Google I/O conference than there is of finding a minority executive in a Silicon Valley C-suite? Numerous factors have been tagged as roadblocks to hiring more diverse candidates, among them:
- Low numbers in high school and college:
- 13% of the students who took the Advanced Placement test in computer science in 2015 were underrepresented minorities (not white or Asian), according to the College Board.
- Only 9.3% of computer and information sciences degrees were earned by Hispanic students in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
- Job candidates often are pooled from Ivy League and private universities with lower enrollments of diverse students, rather than from public universities and historically black institutions, the latter of which account for 35% of the computer science degrees awarded to black students.
- Culture Fit: For some tech companies, new engineers must pass a culture fit test in addition to a coding/skills test.
In the face of public criticism and courtroom challenges, tech firms have released their employment figures and unveiled initiatives to boost minority hiring.
Google appointed a head of diversity in 2013 and became the first tech giant to share its diversity numbers the following year. Others, including Twitter, Apple and Facebook, have since followed the search engine company’s lead.
Some companies also are announcing diversity targets:
- Twitter has set a goal to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in its overall workforce to 11%, in tech roles to 9% and in leadership roles to 6% during 2016.
- Intel set a goal to have underrepresented minorities account for 14% of hires in 2016.
Tech companies are also making efforts at the leadership level.
Pinterest, for example, is implementing a rule that would require at least one candidate from an underrepresented group and one female to be interviewed for every open leadership position. Facebook has a similar approach, much like the so-called Rooney Rule from the NFL, to ensure that hiring managers are exposed to a diverse range of candidates.
Expanding the Candidate Pipeline
Several tech companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, are seeking to amplify the number of K-12 students who are interested in coding and computer science, and then nurture their talent through programs and tools such as DigiGirlz, With Math I Can and Code.org.
Firms such as Yahoo, Facebook and Dropbox say they are increasing recruitment efforts at universities beyond Stanford, Berkeley and other institutions on Silicon Valley’s list of usual suspects. Google reports doubling the number of colleges in its recruitment pool.
The “demographics of diversity of student bodies at some of the most elite colleges where we tend to recruit was more homogenous than the general college population,” Google’s head of diversity, Nancy Lee, told Wired in June 2015. “So we started targeting more schools.”
These tech giants also are partnering with organizations to create more opportunities for underrepresented minorities. For example, Apple’s 2015 STEM partners included Black Girls Code, Blacks in Technology, Black Founders, Hack the Hood and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Firms also are tapping into internships to help bridge the diversity gap. Pinterest is launching an internship program to identify college freshmen and sophomores interested in computer science. In addition, the social networking company has an apprenticeship program for candidates from nontechnical programs, such as coding boot camps.
Still, much more remains to be done, according to the new Diversity in High Tech report.
Employment growth in computer science and engineering is outpacing the national average, and those higher-paying tech jobs are more likely to withstand the whims of recessions or market downturns.
“Making progress in expanding opportunity in the high tech industry is critical to strengthening our economy and reducing inequality in our communities,” EEOC Chairwoman Jenny R. Yang said in a May statement. “Expanding diversity and inclusion is critical to unlocking the full potential of tomorrow’s economy.”
Haley DeLeon writes about cybersecurity and information technology on behalf of Florida Tech’s 100% online graduate degree programs.