As an ever-growing, ever-changing field, the world of tech is often described in the language of accessibility. Social networking has democratised the world of media, giving audiences a voice to respond rather than merely being spoken at, and the ubiquity of the Internet has led to much lauding of its openness. Yet behind this optimistic veneer, there continues to be an insidious lack of racial diversity across the board.
The Financial Times reported that according to recent numbers, the proportion of US technical employees who are black or Latinx at Google and Microsoft had risen by about one percentage point between 2014 and 2019. For such a cutting edge industry, it is a travesty that we are failing to move at a pace beyond this. This is a global issue, mirrored in the UK, where about 8.5% of senior executives in technology are from a minority background.
However, as many people of colour will often mention, even statistics which refer to ‘minority groups’ (i.e. anybody not considered white) are deeply flawed. By lumping all people of colour together and treating them as one homogenous group, we fail to take into consideration the unique barriers faced by each individual group. For example, the term ‘misogynoir’ was coined to refer specifically to the combination of sexism and anti-blackness uniquely faced by black women. Conversely, when compared to other ethnic groups, people of East Asian and Indian backgrounds often benefit from the stereotype of being a ‘model minority’. Yet even these tropes are hugely limited in benefits. For example, Kelvin Zhang, a recent graduate and intern at Google Go, noted that:
‘British and American east Asians tend not to be disadvantaged in their early-stage careers simply due to many teenagers having the right environment and adopting a drive to do well academically. However, I have noticed that east Asians simply struggle to achieve aspirations in their late-stage careers, i.e., getting into executive positions. There is a term often used, “bamboo ceilings”, which describes this phenomenon, which the Harvard Business Review has touched upon in this past. McKinsey also recently published a report with a more general focus and I think it’s also worth a read. There’s no clear way on how to overcome this and I don’t feel there is much focus on this phenomenon with companies often so focused on improving diversity in early careers. Perhaps increasing visibility and ensuring those of us affected empower each other will help — I’m not too sure, but it’s something I will continue thinking about for many years to come.’
It’s key to note that the unique barriers faced by people of colour in the field, as in any, are often rooted in the intersection of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic status. People of colour in the UK are already vastly overrepresented amongst the working class. Any attempts to level the playing field must, therefore, take an intersectional approach if they are to be successful. For example, The Colour of Money, a Runnymede report released April 2020, found that Black African and Bangladeshi households have 10 times less wealth than White British people. Further to this, whilst poverty rates vary significantly by ethnicity, all BME groups are more likely to be living in poverty, despite them also being more likely to have a university degree.
These huge differences in wealth will often mean that people from minority backgrounds are unable to take on work purely for the purpose of progressing their career, whether this takes the form of internships or being able to make a genuine choice between taking advantage of opportunities and experiences available during university or taking on a job. Recruiters can take these factors into consideration by paying interns a livable salary and putting emphasis on the potential for future growth, rather than simply past experience, both of which should considerably diversify the pool of candidates.
(Image credit: The Runnymede Trust)
Underlying all of this is the need to educate both oneself and one’s colleagues on the unique issues faced by minority groups. A common theme throughout social media discussions following George Floyd’s tragic killing earlier this year was the presence of white guilt. Many people of colour were suddenly inundated with friends’ and colleagues’ professions of shame, followed by a promise to do better. Beautifully designed, vividly coloured Instagram infographics became ubiquitous, as did Google Drive links to anti-racism reading lists. However, such events are incredibly traumatic for community members, standing as a reminder that for many, they are not seen as deserving of basic rights. However well-meaning such professions may be, the parading of the PoC suffering across media outlets is exhausting, and immediately pivoting to the few people in your life who fit that description merely directs the onus back towards them. Putting the effort in to educate oneself is short, simple, and shows a basic level of compassion.
Within organisations, much of the discussion around combatting racism is centred around unconscious bias training. Yet as Shahed Ezaydi notes:
‘Businesses have invested in these online courses as a low-effort stop-gap to avoid the public backlash caused by discriminatory behaviour. Online training can cost as little as £25 per person, whereas a full day of face-to-face training can cost upwards of £300 per person… Face-to-face training seems to have more an impact on people than if they were to just complete their training online. But this change in attitude [doesn’t] last.’
This reliance on unconscious bias training has often led to criticism from people of colour who argue that much of the racism they have faced in the workplace has been in the form of very conscious bias, whether in the form of microaggressions or overtly racist comments. Simply installing quotas is not enough. It may lead to superficial change, but companies must ask themselves what they are doing to ensure that their PoC employees are happy and safe whilst in the position. The gap in representation is no new phenomenon, nor is it unique to tech. So long as we seek to continue providing user-oriented products and services, the teams behind them must represent all users, irrespective of background. The only way to combat the current lack thereof is to wage a genuine, prolonged campaign against the barriers faced by people of colour, and to combat bias in all forms, whether unconscious or not.