Hope Rising

Last Tuesday night, I was standing in the middle of a huge crowd in the heart of Times Square in New York. We were following the election results on the towering screens set up by the various TV networks, and there was an electricity pulsating through the crowd that made New Year's Eve seem sleepy in comparison. No garish ball of lights was dropping. Instead, a virtual ball of hope was rising.

At the moment when the screens flashed the numbers that meant our country had elected its first African-American president, I found myself immersed in a wave of elation that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. People of all races cried. Strangers of different races hugged and posed for photographs with each other. Inching their way down Broadway, taxi drivers of all colors extended their arms out their windows to slap hands of all colors. People gazed at the streaming news banners for which Times Square is so well known, their thoughts no doubt spinning at the magnitude of what they read. (To watch a video of that moment, visit my blog.)

My thoughts turned to my three grandchildren and a fourth on the way whose father is of African descent. That they share a heritage with our next president is something I'm certain they'll embrace with pride as they grow up.

I'm sure many others of my generation in the crowd shared my thoughts about how far our country has come in our lifetimes. Reflecting on how far we have yet to go could wait, if only for a few hours. The moment was a long time in coming, and it warranted the pause.

Now, the pause must give way to pondering what is yet to be achieved. The agenda is a long one, and for those of us who follow the IT profession, there's no more glaring item than one highlighted by the results of Computerworld's 2008 IT Salary Survey.

When I wrote about the survey last year, I noted that African-Americans were underrepresented in the IT profession, with only a 3% showing, and that their compensation was significantly lower than that of their white counterparts. So how far have we come in a year?

Unfortunately, we don't seem to have budged. The 3% figure is unchanged, and if anything, the compensation gap is even wider. Last year, African-American IT workers made just 86.4 cents for every dollar white IT workers made (average total compensation of $78,582, compared with $90,901). This year, it was 85.9 cents ($80,733 vs. $93,977).

Other statistics are equally troubling. Whites saw a 3.4% compensation increase from last year, compared with 2.7% for African-Americans, the lowest increase for any ethnicity in the survey. Less than half the African-Americans (49.1%) reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their compensation, compared with 61.1% for whites, the highest satisfaction level of any ethnic group covered.

While the gender wage gap is typically explained away by the arguments that women tend to interrupt their careers for child-rearing and that they're not as likely as men to accept things like relocations to advance their careers, it's far more difficult to rationalize the race wage gap. I wrote last year that one consultant attributed the gap to "intangibles" -- subjective factors that determine where in the compensation range an individual falls. That the building of trusted relationships that enables people to reach the higher end of the subjective range apparently hasn't strengthened in the past year is disappointing.

Yet one heartening statistic came from the survey as well. When asked how satisfied they were with their decision to pursue an IT career, 89.3% of African-Americans said they were satisfied or very satisfied. That's the highest percentage of support for the career path voiced by any ethnicity, including whites, at 84.5%.

Perhaps that says something about perseverance under difficult circumstances, which made what happened last Tuesday night possible in the first place. That ball of hope is a remarkable thing. May it long continue to rise.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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