Solving tech’s stubborn diversity gaps

Twenty years after Jesse Jackson first took aim at tech employers, Silicon Valley’s enduring diversity gaps remain a painful reminder of its origins as a mostly white boy’s club.

Sadly, little has changed in the decades since the campaign first made headlines. Today, just 7.4 percent of tech industry employees are African-American, and 8 percent are Latinx. Workers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter — according to those companies’ own reports — were just 3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black in 2016.

In some ways, tech’s equity gaps reflect a simple supply and demand imbalance. But it is an imbalance with artificial constraints. Because while Black and Hispanic students now earn computer science degrees at twice the rate that they are hired by leading tech companies, they are all but invisible to most recruiters.  

The problem stems from the fact that tech employers tend to recruit from a tiny subset of elite U.S. colleges.  Which means they may never come into contact with, for example, the 20 percent of black computer science graduates who come from historically black colleges and universities. Thousands of talented candidates are overlooked each year because they graduate from less-selective public universities, minority-serving institutions or women’s colleges — schools that exist far outside the elite network where tech employers recruit.

As a result, the recruiting practices of Silicon Valley actually compound the structural race and economic inequities that are endemic at every step of the education-to-career ladder. The number of segregated schools in the United States has doubled over the past 20 years. Poor and minority students often lack SAT and ACT test preparation, college advising services and after-school or extracurricular options. Just 3 percent of the students at the most competitive colleges are from the lowest economic quartile. And even those who make their way through the admissions industrial complex face college-to-career barriers like unpaid internships, which are more than many less-affluent students can endure.

Failure to broaden their aperture for talent means that even the best-intentioned diversity initiatives leave companies competing for the tiny pool of engineers of color who graduate from the top programs.

Inequities have plagued the tech world since Ada Lovelace coded the first computer program in 1842.

To move the needle on diversity, employers must move beyond filtering outputs of top computer science programs and focus on changing the inputs. They must invest in building industry-aligned programs at colleges and universities that are attended by more diverse students, but may lack the know-how to build — and keep current — curricula that prepare students to thrive in an increasingly dynamic tech industry. They can partner with institutions falling into the well-worn traps of academia, teaching theory without application, or relying on dated practices that leave graduates unprepared for the labor market.

A growing number of employers have begun to take such an approach, partnering with institutions that harbor underrepresented talent to transform their computer science programs.

Facebook has partnered with institutions, including the City College of New York, to create industry-relevant courses, and committed to funding the training of 3,000 Michigan workers for jobs in digital marketing. Last year, Facebook invested $1 million in an effort to teach computer science to more women and underrepresented minorities.

In 2015, Intel announced a $300 million effort to diversify its workforce by 2020.Since then, the company has launched a $4.5 million program to help STEM students at historically black colleges stay on track. In 2017, Howard University opened a campus at Google’s headquarters, offering students a three-month program in which they can receive instruction from both Howard faculty and engineers at Google. A year later, Howard leaders said the partnership helped lead to a 40 percent increase in computer science enrollment at the university.

Inequities have plagued the tech world since Ada Lovelace coded the first computer program in 1842 — only to lose her place in the textbooks to the men who capitalized on her insights while denying her contributions. Today, fluency in high-tech skills and knowledge is no longer controlled by an elite few. Opportunity, however, can remain stubbornly fixed.

Top tech companies have already taken the first step by activating the search for underrepresented talent. The next step is to broaden their search beyond elite campuses and invest in the education of underrepresented students.

It will take wholesale collaboration between employers and colleges to provide meaningful, relevant computer science education to any student on any campus. But such partnerships hold the promise of addressing the diversity gaps that blight our industry at its roots.