Q&A: Tech pioneer Earl Pace on racism in the IT workplace

The man behind Black Data Processing Associates says there are still hurdles to be overcome

Early in his career, when he was working as a programming manager for a financial services firm, Earl A. Pace Jr. went to a computer conference in Arizona where there were 200 attendees - 199 whites and him. Well aware of the opportunities in the exploding industry, he decided that ratio needed to change.

So Pace and colleague David Wimberly each ponied up $34 to rent a room at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Philadelphia for a gathering of friends and acquaintances to discuss the idea of forming an association to advance the participation of African-Americans and other minorities in the computer field. That meeting in 1975 gave birth to Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), a national organization that now has more than 50 chapters and aims to provide what it calls "a pathway from the classroom to the boardroom."

Last week, Pace spoke with Computerworld about the obstacles in the IT workplace that African-Americans have worked for decades - and are still working on -- to overcome.

Earl Pace
Earl Pace, founder of Black Data Processing Associates

In your experience, in what ways does racism typically manifest itself in the IT workplace? Computerworld demonstrated one with its [2008 Salary Survey] statistics about the disparity in remuneration. It manifests itself in promotions. It even manifests itself in the way in which companies interact with BDPA. We have companies who are very anxious to come to BDPA's conferences because they want to hire our technical people. But they are loathe to come to a BDPA conference to demonstrate their software or hardware, to deal with us as a high-technology organization where the people who are moving through our expo are people who can and do influence purchasing decisions. Those kinds of presentations and exhibits are very difficult, almost impossible, for us to get. We have booth after booth of companies that want to hire people.

How is the problem of racism in the IT workplace changing? Is it becoming less of a problem, or is it just manifesting itself in different ways? It is not less of a problem. It is, perhaps, more subtle or sophisticated. There are some promotions that have occurred. There are probably more African-Americans and other minorities that have been promoted to senior-level positions than existed in 1975 when BDPA was formed. But the impact of those people at higher levels is marginal with respect to bringing other African-Americans up the pipeline to replace or to supplement them.

To some degree, that's the result of insecurity in the position. In my early years, I was vice president of a financial services firm, responsible for hiring technical people, and I hired based upon ability. As it turned out, I probably hired an equal number of African-Americans and whites. I was at a meeting, and one of the board members of that company actually said to me, "Are you attempting to make the technical staff at our company the United Nations?" He said it right to my face, and I could have been intimidated by that. My response was, "I hire based upon need and capability, not on what I see." And that director walked away.

That wasn't subtle at all. But there are more subtle ways in which people who have moved to a higher position can feel less secure if they [allow] that. Not everyone in that position has a desire to push back. I'm sure now that the preponderance of them would, but if they're going to be criticized for it, they're less likely to do so. Are the challenges faced by African-Americans in the IT workplace different from those faced by other minorities? If so, how are they different? This is a complicated issue to describe or to put your finger on. There are myriad opportunities that people have to discriminate, and color is a significant one. Sometimes it's exacerbated by the exposure opportunity that you have had. For instance, people from India often have a color issue. But the emphasis is reduced by a skill set or by a perception that these people have been trained and are technically sophisticated. Regardless of that, they do experience a degree of discrimination simply because of skin color.

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