Startling Minority Employment Gap in High Tech Sector

by David Honig on March 15, 2011

The composition of the workforces at America’s leading high tech companies leaves much to be desired. This became glaringly evident after the San Jose Mercury News published an article last year that revealed just how few minorities are employed by tech companies in Silicon Valley, our country’s leading high-tech hub: African Americans and Hispanics made up a smaller share of the valley’s tech workers in 2008 than they did in 2000. Even more astonishing, many of the largest and most well-known companies have consistently refused to disclose their hiring practices or the composition of their workforce.

Silicon Valley is not alone – nationally, a mere 7.1 percent of computer and mathematics workers are African American, yet they represent 12.8 percent of the total U.S. population. Likewise, Hispanic Americans make up 15.4 percent of the U.S. population, but only 5.3 percent of computer and mathematics workers.

But it gets worse.

Not only do African Americans and Hispanics occupy lower levels of employment in the high tech sector, but they are also typically underpaid compared to their White and Asian counterparts. In fact, a 2010 report by the National Science Foundation disclosed that the full-time salary for African Americans and Hispanics with science and engineering bachelor’s degrees was 25.8 percent lower than other racial groups. By not providing competitive wages, firms create disincentives for underrepresented minorities to apply for jobs in the high tech sector. These atrocious gaps in minority high tech employment and salaries are deplorable, and we cannot ensure social equality in the digital era unless they are addressed.

Policymakers must educate large and small businesses alike about the benefits of minority employment. For instance, a diverse workforce is critical for facilitating creativity and innovation. Research has found that a diverse workforce invites a wider range of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of thinking – all of which can provide new and varied perspectives for creative tasks.

There is also an economic rationale for hiring minorities: Hiring a workforce that is representative of the consumers it serves will better position companies to develop and market their goods to these audiences. In fact, many researchers have noted that the “cultural understanding needed to market to [specific] demographic niches resides most naturally in marketers with the same cultural background.” Ultimately, companies that recruit diverse workforces have been found to have a competitive advantage over those that do not.

With minorities comprising over one-third of the U.S. population, high tech firms have both a social responsibility and a viable economic incentive for actively incorporating minority groups into their workforce. Beyond hiring initiatives, these companies must also ensure that minority workers are equally compensated. Policymakers need to support these initiatives by demanding transparent reporting of minority employment and income data, working with high tech firms to raise awareness about effective hiring practices aimed at hiring minorities, and promoting high tech entrepreneurship and small business ownership by minorities.

  • David Honig is MMTC’s President and Executive Director. He co-founded the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority owned media and telecom brokerage.

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  • Guest

    Women are also grossly underrepresented in the high tech industry.

    In some ways its surprising that these companies haven’t encouraged diversity, simply as good business practice given that the U.S. population is experiencing a population shift whereby minorities are becoming the majority. The cynical side of me, however, is not as surprised. This is a structural problem that is emerging in every aspect of our career cycles.

    We can fix this problem by changing the structure beginning with education – the federal and state governments need to fix the educational divide and reform our educational system to focus on STEM education. We also need to reverse the emerging skills divide by providing training to those who were previously failed by a broken educational system. Finally, the public needs to hold companies accountable for their hiring and discriminatory payment practices. We should demand that companies release this data and express our outrage for continued discrimination by taking legal action and refusing to buy discriminator’s products.

  • John_Q_Public

    If we are to truly “win the future,” then these numbers will have to change. More needs to be done to assure a sufficiently diverse workforce and to assure that our nation’s education system is producing enough innovators to sustain America’s edge in innovation.

  • JCraigDC

    Well stated. We can’t forget about women or the education system we rely upon to train our domestic workforce.

    I stress domestic workforce because my concern is that these companies are hiring minorities, just not those in our domestic workforce. Without the data, we cannot find out if that is because our workforce doesn’t have the skills to meet employers needs or if there is some more insidious reason for not employing more Blacks and Hispanics. Our nation can act now to better educate all our students, particularly in STEM, so that our domestic workforce will be ready for jobs creating in this digital economy.

  • ScottRB

    This is a complex issue. Step into a class in electrical engineering in almost any college and you will find mostly white faces — perhaps exclusively so.

    More African Americans and others need to pursue an education in computer science and engineering — the jobs are there. But the companies can’t hire many minorities if they are not in the job pool.

  • Marcella1016

    That’s a great point, Scott! Perhaps the issue needs to be looked into with the proportion of black and Hispanic grads in mind.

    BUT…what about the payment gap? Even if a lower proportion of minorities are graduating with these technical degrees, an even smaller proportion may find these jobs less lucrative due to the lower pay they are receiving.

    Why is there a salary disparity between minorities and whites in the industry? A 25% difference in pay is a hugely significant amount. It doesn’t exactly come off as a “Welcome, we’d love to hire you!” sign.

  • Luc

    I think the true problem is that most African Americans or Hispanics are not raised to want to work in techy fields. For minorities its not an attractive field of interest to specialize in. The numbers are sad but they are true.

    What must be done is children should be introduced to the relevancy and importance of this industry early on so that we increase the numbers of African Americans and Hispanics in these fields.

  • S. Witter

    Great article on an extremely important issue. I don’t think people realize just how few minority views are involved in the high tech sector. It’s about time these companies are called out on this so that they are forced to make a change.

  • Anonymous

    As a minority in the tech field I cannot say that people view it as “not an attractive field” but just that people know so little about it, if any at all. Computer science and other technology related fields did not cross my mind until I went to college, and then I thought it was too late for me. I am now in the tech field as a grad student, and playing catchup unfortunately. I agree that children must be introduced to the field from an early age, but moreso they must be given a strong math and science education in order to help them compete for those jobs.

  • Marcella

    I agree, Kam.

    I didn’t know much going into college, and although I had a VERY strong math background (I went into college with a Calculus credit from high school), it just never occurred to me to get into the field. Midway through my Sophomore year, I realized that engineering would be a great fit for me, but at Howard it is a five year program, and I didn’t want to spend 7 years in undergrad.

    Now, I have a Business degree that I don’t use at all, and I question the choices of my past.

    Bottom line is, I think we need more role models and mentors at younger ages to guide us, especially those of us (like me) who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and not too many people to help us see all the opportunities at our disposal.

  • Knothetruth

    People often look at the large-scale solution of fixing the education system, which should be done, but will take years. There are things that can be done today, better. For example HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities graduate engineers every year. However these schools aren’t often on the recruitment schedule of the large corps and high tech companies. Let’s start there. There are qualified hispanic and african-americans out there today who are looking but aren’t being courted due to the school they attended.

  • It is possible

    I agree with the author- beside the incentive for hiring minorities, lawmakers should make it mandatory for employers to disclose a report on minority employment and income data. This will help close this appalling gap.

  • Jvelezhagan

    I believe there may be an unseen rational reason (as opposed to the claim of racial discrimination) behind why minorities are underpaid and underemployed, which has to do with lower levels of quality education compared to their peers. You can easily compare individuals with similar degrees, but as a small business owner, I am guilty of discriminating when I compare an engineering degree from MIT to one from another lesser known or even a 100% online university. The sad truth is that a greater proportion of minorities and lower-income individuals opt for the easier and more cost-effective path of an online, community college, or tech school education. In addition, while attending a traditional school there is far greater accessibility to gain experience within their chosen career path through internships or other on-the-job training programs. More of our minority breathren need to be made aware of these stark differences in the eyes of an employer and the value of obtaining a high quality traditional education.

  • hanigler

    I live in Plano, Texas, and I can tell you that there are a bunch of high tech companies in this area, and there are tons of Indians and Asians working at these companies. I think high tech companies in general hire alot of Indians/Asians, so they aren’t white supremacists or something crazy like that. They are just hiring the minorities that are qualified, and it just so happens that more Indians and Asians are qualified for tech jobs than Hispanics and African Americans.

  • Pam

    What few Native Americans or African Americans ARE qualified get passed over regularly for Asian Indians and other Asians on purpose. It doesn’t just happen; American Indians and blacks are regularly discouraged from even going into these fields by our peers, the schools themselves, and sometimes the teachers. Then if we manage to get science degrees we find that no jobs are available. Employers paper-screen out anyone whose name isn’t Asian in origin. The Asians have an easier time passing the face-to-face interview because they can show up without the door being slammed in their face or getting told they must be in the wrong department or otherwise in the wrong place. Natives and blacks in the USA have to fight against society’s stereotypes of us not being competent in those fields and for most of us a lifetime of fighting against everyone wherever we go assuming that we must not be competent and thus, don’t belong in those fields, is too much to handle. It’s like salmon trying to swim upstream against the current, only 25/7, forever, every minute of every single day of our lives. Asians and Asian Indians aren’t living fighting stereotypes every single minute of their lives if they “dare” to choose a scientific field to major in in college. Most Native Americans and blacks are fighting upstream just by graduating high school with high scores in math and science in the first place, and if we dare to go to college and major in science, engineering, law, or math, we’re practically ostracized from our families and blackballed from society. It doesn’t “lust so happen.” Many life factors go into making it this way.

  • Pam

    Minorities in America who grow up in minority communities face the harshest opposition from their peers. If a black girl decides to be good at math or science from grade school onward, in a heavily-black ghetto area she will find herself in physical danger from black boys on a regular basis because of the black ghetto mentality that seems to state that the girls shouldn’t try to “outdo” the boys. Among blacks growing up “black” the biggest obstacle to being smart, successful, graduating the “good” high schools with good enough grades to get into the “good” colleges, etc, is other blacks themselves. Until the black community stops equating being smart in math or physics with “acting white” they will never stop tormenting each other OUT of such achievement. This is something nonblack people will never understand because it is indeed incomprehensible to those who don’t think like that.

  • Pam

    Even those who do attend “mainstream” colleges can’t get jobs once they see us. Even if we “look white” on paper we still can’t get our foot in the door. If people would stop equating brown skin with stupidity and incompetence that would be a start, but then you’d have to un-brainwash an entire society.

  • Pam

    If black boys would stop beating up and otherwise tormenting black girls who are smarter than them that would be a good start.

  • Pam

    American blacks don’t tend to like the idea of going into classrooms with mostly white or all-white classmates. For some reason they gravitate towards subjects where their classmates will look like them, as if that alone means they have anything in common. It’s a narrow minded, ghetto way of thinking and as soon as that gets educated out of them, then and only then will blacks be comfortable in Physics, Engineering, and Biochem classes.

    Nonacceptance by the Black community, real or perceived, is the biggest obstacle for blacks even considering pursuing science degrees.

  • northshorespeaker

    I absolutely have to agree with your point. I grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods and went to predominantly black schools. I remember hearing about kids being teased about “acting white” when they got good grades and showed up for all of their classes. I made the decision that when it comes down to it, no black or white person is going to help pay my bills or put food on my table. No matter what type of job I ended up doing, I would have to provide for my needs on my own. I realized I would never here the words “Yo dog, you been dealing with all this racism in this country, so we’re here to take care of your cable bill and car note, cause you know, as black folks we take care of take care of our own and we roll like that.” I had to face the fact that I would never hear those words from the black, white, Latino or any other community. Whatever I wanted for myself, I would have to get a job and make it happen. I figured that since I’ll be the one making it happen, I might as well do it in a high paying field like computer science.

  • Helenofreims

    Article stressing then need of diversity. Technology is diverse maybe baffled? Not hardly, presently in tech industry. Buddy system alumni and referred. Interest are those getting ahead.
    Since, majority “start ups” pressure. To become next success is stressful. Yes, as woman living in France. EU not liberal as you assume. French,Italian and Dutch firms prefer. Men observe the
    management banking and tech. EU majority men also relations thought. Difference there sexism
    in tech community. Men resent successful women laugh. Apple,Seagate and Microsoft distorting the media. Appeasing indifference they hire diversity. Inaccurate statistic 80% men engineering.
    Dominated field even India ratio. Women allow to become senior advisors. Dismal oppose USA
    they promote. Diversity labor laws which have. Flaws when minorities say there. Excluded why
    acceptance of “Green Cards”. I’ll be specific of nationalities. Indian,Sri Lankan and Chinese. Whom majority getting employment. USA,Canada,Australia and UK. Predominately English markets since emergence. Korean “brand management” France demand. Senior managers be
    French speaking. And born women hired usually. Asian firms seldom hire women. Those saying
    exclusive few. Do your research this woman. Experience sexism from best firms. Angers me they stil retain. Honorable positions for men only. Women excel in chosen roles. Equality is needed!

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