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Excerpts From Specs of Pepper in a Sea of Salt

First, let me share with you some statistics – In the 1970s, the percentage of Blacks in technology was just over 1%. This was the statistic when I started out working at APF Electronics in 1976. In a 2014 Diversity in High Tech Report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the current percentage of Black employees in high-tech industries is 7.4%, yet about 13% of the U.S. population is Black.

In contrast, Hispanic employees hold just about 8% of jobs in high tech, but 18% of the overall population in 2019 was Hispanic. Add gender identity to this data and you find that Black, Latina and Native American women received just 4% of computing degrees in 2016. According to Wired (paywall), these numbers have barely moved in some companies in five years.


Here is what researcher Sarah K. White (yes, she is white) as published in CIO Magazine came up with: Opportunity and advancement in IT are anything but equal. Survey data sheds light on the roadblocks Black IT pros experience in trying to get ahead.


Despite a recent push to address diversity issues in IT, data shows that Black professionals still face an uphill battle in the tech industry, receiving less recognition, opportunity, and acceptance than non-Black peers.

 

Because of this, according to a report from Russel Reynolds Associates and Valence, 47% of Black technology professionals “strongly agree” that they must switch between companies more regularly for career growth, whereas only 28% of non-Black respondents said the same.

 

To advance their careers and earn more pay, Black talent in the tech industry move away from employers every 3.5 years on average, while their non-Black peers report switching jobs every 5.1 years on average. This is especially common for those with less than 10 years of experience. According to the report, “on average, Black tech talent stays at each company for 2 years, while their non-Black peers stay for 4.5 years.”

In addition to providing Black IT pros less opportunity for advancement, companies that are not addressing issues that underlie this turnover are also costing themselves talent and money.

 

The study assigns a value of $144,000 per tech employee, meaning that tech companies in aggregate lose the equivalent of $1.2 billion dollars each year because of inequitable and often unwelcoming work environments.

 

Here are six revealing statistics that show how far the IT industry still has to go before it can truly become a level playing field.

 

1.          Unfair and hostile work environments

 

A study from The Kapor Center for Social Impact and The Ford Foundation found unfair treatment to be the top driver of employee turnover, in particular for employees from underrepresented groups. More than one in three Black participants in the 2017 survey said they left a job or company due to unfairness within the past year. Of those surveyed, 25% of underrepresented men and women of color reported experiencing stereotyping at twice the rate of White and Asian men and women — and nearly 30% of women of color say they were passed over for a promotion. Unsurprisingly, stereotyping and bullying were related to length of employment — the more toxicity experienced, the shorter the amount of time an employee will stay in their job. In a 2022 report, State of Tech Diversity: The Black Tech Ecosystem, the Kapor Center found that nearly half of all Black technologists reported experiencing racial inequity in hiring, promotion, leadership opportunities, and salaries and benefits.


While most people adjust behaviors or appearance at work, Black tech talent are “more frequently code-switching in aspects deeply related to their identity, which elicits many questions about the way authentic ‘Blackness’ is received in the industry,” according to the report from Russel Reynolds Associates and Valence. Code-switching is the act of changing your behavior to better fit in to an environment and avoid drawing negative attention.

 

The research shows that Black professionals are more than three times as likely than their non-Black peers to avoid sharing personal details about themselves, keep work and personal friend groups separate, change their hairstyles to be more “acceptable,” bring food to work that is considered more “mainstream,” and use a nickname or abbreviated name to feel more accepted at work.

 

Retaining hires from underrepresented groups requires re-examining your work environment to ensure it is welcoming for a diverse range of employees. If new hires quickly find your internal culture allows for microaggressions, hostility, a pressure to code-switch, and an inability to bring one’s authentic self to work, you can’t expect them to stay. Companies need to evaluate their workplace culture for bias, discrimination, and inequities to make sure everyone can feel safe and supported.

 

If you’re experiencing a high turnover rate with people of color in your organization, that’s a red flag that significant changes need to be made. The chances of this behavior being a core of the company culture, in many cases this type of behavior continues to go on unchecked. Managers don’t realize something is wrong until the employee quits.

 

2.     A lack of representation in leadership

 

Turnover not only costs companies billions in profits, it also negatively impacts leadership diversity, a crucial factor in creating a more diverse and welcoming working environment, as it is difficult for employees to imagine career growth at a company if they don’t see anyone that looks like them at the top.

 

report from McKinsey & Co. estimates that, at current tech hiring and promotion rates, it will take 95 years for Black employees to reach “talent parity” (12% representation) in the private sector. This is a disheartening statistic that won’t change without considerable work being done at the top.

 

Between 2014 and 2021, the tech industry only increased black representation by 1%, according to data from the Kapor Center. Black workers are also paid 4% less than their peers and often hired into lower-level roles than they are qualified for. Black tech talent represents only 4.4% of board roles, 3.7% of technical roles, and 4% of executive leadership.

 

Both Black and non-Black professionals agree that their leaders “regularly exhibit inclusive leadership behaviors in some way,” but only 25% of both groups said that their leaders “always lead with fairness, objectivity, and transparency,” according to McKinsey. Companies shouldn’t take that information lightly — if employees in your organization don’t feel supported by leadership, they will leave. Organizations need to take honest stock of the state of DEI in the organization and create goals to change any inequities or implicit biases that are baked into the culture.

 

It’s important that everyone is represented at the top — when decisions are being made, everyone’s voice needs to be heard. Diversifying leadership isn’t just about hitting DEI goals, it’s about creating an environment that takes everyone into consideration equally when developing organizational goals. Contrary to the current political climate, leadership needs to be honest about representation in the organization and transparent about the company’s failings, while also setting clear targets to improve and to hold leadership accountable to DEI goals. If there is seriousness around DEI, leadership needs to put people in place at the senior executive level, provide them with a budget and direct reports. The head of DEI should not be reporting into HR. HR should have a dotted line to the head of DEI.


3.          A lack of opportunity


Black tech professionals also face an “information disadvantage” when it comes to getting ahead in their IT careers. According to the Russel Reynolds Associates and Valence report, Black IT pros are often not afforded the same “level of insight into how the game is played, who they need to know, and how to plan their paths for success.” When asked, 78% of non-Black tech professionals said they understood the importance of networking in the industry, while 56% of Black tech talent said the same. And 57% of non-Black talent said they typically find out about open roles through their network, while only 39% of Black talent said the same.

 

There is also a severe lack of sponsorship for Black tech talent in the industry. Sponsorship is different from mentorship because it’s directly tied to your ability to move up in the company. Having someone higher up in the organization who can vouch for you and champion your successes when it comes time for promotions is a huge factor in corporate success.


Oftentimes, Black tech workers struggle to find sponsorship in the organization because leaders tend to sponsor workers who are more like them — typically white and male. Ensuring Black IT pros have the same opportunities for sponsorship as their non-Black peers can go a long way in ensuring they are afforded the same career growth opportunities as everyone else.

 

Evaluate your sponsorship programs to make sure they work for everyone. Connect Black talent in the organization with the resources and network to grow their careers, giving them the tools to understand how “the game” is played. Build performance reviews to have more structure and transparency, and make sure everyone in the company understands the expectations going into performance reviews, rather than just assuming they’re all on the same page or working with the same information.

 

Many firms in industries like manufacturing and financial services have long adopted mentoring programs. These programs encourage collaborative learning by bringing in top executives to mentor employees at all levels. Aside from teaching critical advancement skills, the mentoring program allows executives and employees to build real, human connections.

 

4.     Disparities in apprenticeship programs

 

Apprenticeship programs have become an increasingly popular way for companies to open the talent pipeline and to train employees on the IT and tech skills they need in the organization. As a work-based learning experience, apprenticeships allow individuals to earn a living while they learn new skills with the promise of a job opportunity at the end of the program.

 

It’s part of a shift to skills-based hiring, instead of degree-based hiring, which eliminates 75% of Black adults from consideration, according to the New York Times. While there’s been an increase in representation, with 17% of tech apprentices identifying as Black over the past six years, according to the Kapor Center, there are still some stark disparities in what’s offered.

 

The Kapor Center found that less than one-quarter of Black apprentices complete their apprenticeship, compared to 33% of white apprentices. This is due to several reasons, including racial discrimination and hostility or problems at home. But also because companies often set up apprenticeship programs in career pathways that are at the highest risk for being displaced by automation. Black and women tech apprentices are also paid less than other apprentices, according to the report.

 

Apprenticeships are a great opportunity to open the talent pipeline, bring in more diversity, and upskill workers in your organization. It’s extremely important, however, to consider how you shape the programs and what opportunities are offered once completed. Ensuring that your apprenticeship programs offer everyone the same equity and opportunity is vital to fostering better diversity in the industry.

 

5.          Higher standards, lower ceilings

 

Once Black tech professionals hit mid-career, they are more likely to express dissatisfaction with the performance evaluation process. Only 29% of Black tech professionals with 10 to 20 years of experience are satisfied with the equality of their “level of recognition and of the equality of their pay,” whereas 47% of non-Black professionals said the same. This group of mid-career professionals report being promoted nearly half as often as their non-Black counterparts, even with the same amount of experience. Black tech professionals with 10 to 20 years of experience report three promotions on average for their careers, while their non-Black coworkers report having received five or more promotions on average.

 

Another report from Russel Reynolds Associates, Divides and Dividends: Leadership Actions for a More Sustainable Future, found that 63% of C-suite leaders agree that leaders in their company show favoritism for employees who are like themselves, especially when it comes to promotions, and 62% agreed that it’s “easier for individuals of certain ethnicities or backgrounds to get promoted than others, regardless of their capability and performance.” This is only exacerbated when companies focus too heavily on hiring for a “culture fit,” especially if the culture is one that is not inclusive to all its workers.

 

Leaders need to take a hard look at their hiring and promotion practices and address processes that allow for bias and discrimination to play a part in who gets to advance in the company.

 

6.          Outdated mindsets, moving goalposts

 

Senior Black tech talent and executives with 21 or more years of experience in the industry point to the fact that “the bar moves subjectively, no matter what.” Regardless of what they accomplish or contribute, this cohort of Black IT pros say they are often eliminated or overlooked for opportunities based on what they “haven’t accomplished,” an outdated and problematic mindset about “who is qualified to lead.” For many Black technology leaders, they believe that “no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough,” and only 29% say they are satisfied with the career opportunities they’ve had to date, compared to 52% of non-Black tech professionals with the same level of experience.

 

Many Black executives and senior Black tech professionals say that one of the biggest roadblocks they have encountered has been a lack of access to “critical development experiences,” compared to non-Black counterparts. Nearly 90% of non-Black tech professionals with more than 20 years of experience have led “major company initiatives,” whereas only 61% of Black tech professionals with the same amount of experience can say the same. And nearly 25% of Black tech professionals with extensive experience in the industry do not feel they will have the chance to lead a major company initiative, whereas only 7% of their non-Black counterparts said the same.

 

Investing in leadership development is crucial, and it’s equally important to ensure your Black tech staff is receiving the same development opportunities as their non-Black peers. Ensure your leadership is trained on DEI and inclusive leadership skills — try interviewing leaders to get a sense of how they’d handle different scenarios related to diversity and recognizing implicit and internal bias. You can’t change inequities in your company culture overnight, but you can make concerted efforts and take steps in weeding out homogeneity in tech to build a more diverse and equitable industry.

 

The way people of color in technology are paid uncovers some of the challenges related to equity. This disparity is nothing new. Since the technology space is relatively new (50-60 years old), blacks only entered this workforce in a somewhat meaningful way over the past 30 years. This delay has in some cases marginalized the way blacks are both perceived in technology and how they are able to educate themselves and obtain equal opportunities.


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