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Why Whitewashing Diversity In Tech Is A Big Problem

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You might expect to see an audience of many colors at Minecon 2015, which opened this week in London with a record-breaking 10,000 attendees from 73 countries for a conference built around the Minecraft video game.

But alas, the photos show another story. And it is the same story repeatedly told throughout the technology industry.

Facebook’s recent employee diversity report deserves no “likes,” but plenty of shares, as the tech company’s employee base does not reflect its multicultural user base. Fifty seven percent of all Facebook employees are white. There were 1.25 billion monthly active users across the globe as of the first quarter of this year.

But this is about more than just employment at one incredibly successful tech startup recently declared worth more than WalMart at $238 billion.

Google released its similarly disappointing diversity numbers last year, reporting that 61 percent of all employees are white. And in spite of a slick website promising that diversity leads to success and declarations of the establishment of employee networks from Blacks at Microsoft to Filipinos at Microsoft, more than 59 percent of the employees at Microsoft are white.

The recent technology forum hosted by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Google in California is an attempt to shift the tide and change the numbers.

But those numbers are consistent with the 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, which shows that despite the increased demand for talent amongst STEM companies, there has been little progress toward decreasing racial and gender disparities for interest and aptitude in STEM. Cultural issues, such as early bias, discrimination and social expectations avert talent from entering employment pipelines.

This type of narrow employment opportunity has serious wealth-building implications for young African American and Latino professionals. These two groups are the least represented in the burgeoning sector. Lack of quality employment opportunities is one the leading causes of the racial wealth gap, according to the Institute for Assets and Social Poverty and Demos.

It’s no secret that the technology sector is a young and lucrative industry. The median age is often under 30 for the largest companies, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

It’s also a high income earning industry with a median income of $291,497 in 2013 according to SF Gate.

As the cost of living continues to rise, young professionals– especially young professionals– need access to the industries that allow them to have enough discretionary income to build wealth. In many cases, millennials of color not only build wealth for themselves and their children, but in many cases, they financially assist their parents and extended family.

Unfortunately, hiring patterns in the tech startup field do not provide employment opportunities to the young professionals of color who could significantly benefit from working in such lucrative arenas. Some companies, such as Intel, are attempting to change that. Intel announced earlier this year a $300 million Diversity in Technology Initiative.

Still, some argue that the tech industry cannot find the talent within underrepresented communities.  But African Americans have the second highest rate of Computer Science degrees after whites, according to William Spriggs, Chair of Howard University’s Department of Economics.

Similarly, the number of STEM programs continues to flourish across the country. Organizations such as “Black Girls Code” and “4-H” are proactively grooming young talent of color for positions in the tech industry as well as calling for more diversity within the field.

Conversely in the tech industry, and at companies such as Facebook, many are advocates of the H-B1 visa, the non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. Essentially, the tech sector is pro-actively seeking talent overseas rather than investing in domestic young professionals of color.

This becomes increasingly clear since the number of African American employment in the tech sector has declined as the number H-B1 approvals have increased since 2009. Thus, the tech sector is assisting to a brain-drain abroad and a domestic brain-waste.

The opportunity to build wealth, or become financially secure, becomes increasingly out-of-reach for African American and Latino professionals when they are shut out from wealth building opportunities in entire sectors of the economy.

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, we cannot expect to thrive economically as a country if we do not empower the growing majority through targeted hiring policies and programs.

In addition to demanding diversity data from leading sectors, we must also challenge their recruitment and hiring practices. We must push them to have better relationships with heralded historically Black institutions. And we must require that they not only tout diversity programs, which are geared toward diversity and equity across the labor force, but actually make them a priority and walk the talk by hiring more employees of color and placing more of these employees on their corporate boards.

We must also encourage tech companies to implement hiring best practices that have helped increase diversity in other struggling sectors. Best practices such as the “RLJ Rule” proposed by BET founder Robert “Bob” Johnson (and is based on the National Football League’s famous “Rooney Rule”), have helped expand the diversity ranks in the financial service sector and professional coaching arena respectively. The RLJ rule requires that for all open positions and contracts, especially upper management positions, that businesses seek out and interview at least two qualified people of color.

Typically, the result is that qualified professionals normally excluded or skipped over for interviews due to cultural bias are given a chance to prove their value and talent.

There should be no difficulty in finding professionals of color who are willing and capable of leading in the tech sector. The 21st century sector should have the racial composition of those that use it. And that is news worth sharing.

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Sabrina Terry is the Manager of Community and Economic Development at the NAACP National Economic Department. She has a Master’s of Science in City and Regional Planning from Pratt Institute and is part of The OpEd Project’s program at the Center for Global Policy Solutions.