Getting to Equal in Silicon Valley

by DeVan Hankerson on December 31, 2014

Woman Facing the Glass CeilingThis September, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) urged that the Federal Communications Commission assign its Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age (Diversity Committee) the task of investigating the causes behind troubling employment patterns and practices in high tech sector firms.  As high tech firms reveal dismal track records of diversity hiring, questions surface as to what is behind the dearth of diverse talent in Silicon Valley, and whether public policy should intervene to better integrate the high tech industry.

Earlier this year, major Silicon Valley companies released their lackluster diversity numbers. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the nation’s leading religious and social development organization, was at the center of this crusade through their Silicon Valley project.  As more data was made available, the public’s suspicions about the lack of diversity in the Valley were confirmed – white males are disproportionately retaining the majority of high tech jobs. 

Table 1 - Silicon Valley Workforce by Gender and Ethnicity(Click for larger image)

Recent reporting from USA Today supports this belief about the growing mismatch between the credentialing of people of color and their recruitment in the high tech industries where hiring practices of diverse recruits are passive at best. The USA Today feature also states that the numbers of minorities being hired in Silicon Valley is dismal compared to the numbers of minorities graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer science or computer engineering from U.S. universities. Most notably, the feature reported that there are readily available, qualified, well-trained people of color waiting to be hired or promoted, citing research conducted by the Computing Research Association. The study found that in 2013, 4.5 percent of undergraduate Computer Science recipients were African American and 6.5 percent were Hispanic – but these groups are being hired at less than half those rates.

Minority Staff at 7 Tech Companies and Minorities Graduating with CS Degrees

How is Silicon Valley missing out on these talent opportunities?

One answer is that the high tech industry only recruits at specific institutions, neglecting to consider students attending other competitive programs, particularly those from less competitive and majority-minority schools such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions. Wired magazine provided a breakdown of which colleges feed the big tech companies, and that list includes only fourteen U.S. schools.

A second answer, offered by many in the tech industry including Apple CEO Tim Cook, is that deficiencies in the curriculum – particularly in economically disadvantaged schools – don’t prepare students for careers in cutting-edge, technology-driven industries.

While improvements in technology and math curricula are a critical problem in U.S. schools, people of color who are in Silicon Valley are promoted less and paid less than their non-minority counterparts. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics found that only two to three percent of African Americans and Hispanic Americans are senior-level technology workers at Silicon Valley companies.

Taking into consideration these concerns, it is clear that the problem is systemic.

The issue does not stop here.  The lack of diversity and inclusion in Internet and technology firms extend equally to the boardroom. Companies with low diversity figures at the staff level appear to also have trouble cultivating and recruiting diverse board directors.

Table 2 - Race and Ethnicity Board of Directors(Click for larger image)

Data provided by Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Silicon Valley project shows that on the Boards of Directors of 21 software, hardware, and Internet services firms such as HP, IBM, and Salesforce, only four (19 percent) had either an African American or Hispanic as a member. None of the companies included more than two people of color as members of the board.  More than 50 percent of the boards surveyed included white-only board members.

While all of the tech giants insist that they are hiring all the qualified African American and Hispanic tech workers they can find, the fact is that the talent-hiring mismatch impacts diversity in the industry and the competitiveness of American workers.  These problems are especially troubling given traditional media and telecom industries’ ongoing struggle to promote diverse employment and the plethora of available data on proposed solutions.

Clearly, limiting their search to a very small number of educational institutions artificially constrains the pool of qualified minority candidates.  The talent pipeline for minorities is definitely not big enough, and more needs to be done to prepare and direct people of color toward high tech fields – but the field for recruiting talent must also expand. Advancing the curricula to ensure that students of color are adequately prepared for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers is necessary, but how can these programs be scaled up and funded in order to meet increasing demands for 21st century workers?

Finally, creating professional development programs that promote senior executives of color internally can also boost inclusion efforts.  And while STEM skills are important, technology companies have many roles outside of software engineering that could be filled by talented, highly qualified candidates of color.

All of this begs the question: should it be a concern of policymakers to ensure equal employment and opportunities, particularly in a sector that is one of the most influential economic industries the nation has ever seen?

MMTC’s request to the Commission to review and explore this issue is well within the jurisdiction of its Diversity Committee, whose most recent Charter says that the Committee shall “provide recommendations to the FCC regarding policies and practices that will further enhance diverse participation in the telecommunications and related industries” (emphasis added).

It is vital that the FCC, through the expertise of the Diversity Committee, learn whether the mismatch between the graduation rates of qualified CS students and hiring rates in the industry is the result of bias. Additionally, it is important that the FCC determine how best to address hiring biases in the recruitment and interviewing process and assist in identifying opportunities for high tech companies to bring in new talent from outside of their established networks.

It is the exclusion of minorities and women that negatively impacts the high tech industry. Without more oversight, the FCC compromises its ability to fulfill its Congressional mandates to regulate EEO and promote employment and ownership diversity in the converging communications and technology industries.

MMTC believes that the current data deepens the urgency for the Commission – and other policymakers, for that matter – to reinvigorate the conversation on this issue. MMTC urges the Commission to adopt this concern and elevate it as one of the primary issues presented for the Diversity Committee’s review. It is important to encourage engagement from policymakers to support the industry in the wake of the landmark release of diversity data.

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