Fixing the pipeline won’t solve tech’s race problem

The tech industry likes to cast its failure to include enough people of color and other underrepresented groups as a “pipeline problem” — one that would vanish if only more such people studied tech skills and entered the field.

But there’s another reason U.S. tech companies struggle to diversify: work environments that critics say are rife with harassment and discrimination even as companies paint themselves as champions for diversity.

Why it matters: The hard truth is that filling up the pipeline won’t help, as long as employees keep quitting their jobs, being forced out or leaving the industry.

By the numbers: Companies do a better job documenting overall representation by race than they do at reporting attrition rates, which aren’t always included in publicly released diversity reports.

  • Google is the exception. Its report shows attrition among Black employees was 12% higher than the overall rate in 2020 and 21% higher so far in 2021.
  • Those numbers aren’t conclusive — the company also lost white employees at a higher than average rate, while retaining Asian employees in higher numbers.

One extensive study of tech attrition, conducted by the Kapor Center in 2017, found that “employees within tech companies experienced significantly more unfairness than employees in non-tech companies” and that “underrepresented men of color were most likely to leave due to unfairness.”

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Departing employees, experts note, will often simply leave a job without talking about experiences of discrimination, believing they won’t be heard or concerned that they’ll jeopardize their next job hunt.

  • Few have the emotional and financial wherewithal to take on a big tech company. “Many people can’t afford to take the risk of having no health insurance, having no income,” said Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest employee and whistleblower. “It is a very personal decision to speak up. It’s also not easy for those who do.”

Yes, but: Current and former employees continue to sound alarms on social media.

  • Google associate product manager Angel Onuoha recently tweeted about the experience of having security called on him as a suspicious person while simply working and biking on campus. The tweet went viral, and others shared similar experiences at Google and elsewhere.
  • A growing number of tech employees who raise issues of discrimination say that part or all of the company’s reaction has been to suggest counseling or medical leave, rather than addressing the alleged discriminatory conduct.

Rashad Robinson, president of the activist group Color of Change, said that Black women and women of color have borne the brunt of harassment in tech and have been among the most willing to speak out, risking their next job in the field.

  • Companies often react to such issues as if this is the first time they are hearing about them, even as they have heard such stories over and over, Robinson said. “It doesn’t even actually pass the smell test.”
  • Pinterest paid $22.5 million to settle a gender pay discrimination suit at the end of last year. However, that settlement was made with the white COO who pursued the issue and not the two Black women — Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks — who earlier had raised issues of racial and gender discrimination.
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Girls Who Code CEO Tarika Barrett said that when she talks with girls considering working for a tech company, she tells them — especially young women of color — that they are likely to find that they are the only one like themselves in the room.

  • She also noted a recent survey of Girls Who Code participants who were interning at tech companies that found half of the respondents had either personally experienced harassment or knew someone who had.

The big picture: In tech, the failure to represent groups inside companies also influences the products they produce, baking in harmful biases.

The bottom line: Leaders in the field say many of the social problems caused by tech products could have been identified early and even corrected if their creators came from more-diverse backgrounds.

  • Robinson cites Zoom’s failure to anticipate the need to protect meetings from malicious disruptions: “All you had to do was talk to some Black folks.”
  • Barrett says the high stakes are why it’s so critical that people of color are represented at tech companies. “There is no opting out of tech.”

Go deeper: Tech’s race problem is all about power


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