The state of ethnic minorities in U.S. tech: 2020

A survey of people of color shows a mix of good and bad news on racial inequality, and a disturbing lower concern within Silicon Valley and by executives compared to IT at large.

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The tech industry has been talking about increasing minority participation for decades — I wrote my first story on the topic for an IEEE Computer Society magazine in 1990, and things have changed little since then.

This year, B2B review site TrustRadius surveyed employees at both tech providers and IT organizations to find out the status of ethnic minorities in the tech industry, and sought out minority voices for a direct take. The People of Color Tech Report released today drew 1,207 respondents, 53% of whom identified as people of color: 16% were Black, 16% Asian, 12% Hispanic, 5% Indigenous, and 7% other non-white, such as mixed-race.

(TrustRadius provides curated reviews for enterprise tech products, but it also has funded surveys to better understand those marginalized in the industry, such as one on women in IT. CEO Vinay Bhagat is of South Asian descent, so the issue of ethnic minorities in tech is of personal interest; the George Floyd killing by police earlier this year served as a “wake-up call” to get current data to support action by the tech industry to support people of color.)

The status of minorities in U.S. tech

A Wired survey in October 2019 estimated the combined Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous population at 5% for Silicon Valley firms (which get most of the media attention, even though they're just a sliver of the tech industry). For IT overall, the numbers are better; the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission Bureau estimated those groups together account for 16% of the industry population last year, with Asians accounting for another 14%.

More people of color than a decade ago

 TrustRadius didn't conduct a population study, but it did ask respondents whether they believe more people of color are in the tech industry than 10 years ago. The answer is yes; 65% of minorities say diversity has increased in the last decade, as do 58% of whites. TrustRadius ascribes the difference to people of color being more aware of people like themselves. More importantly, the data suggests the tech industry actually has made some diversity progress after years of promises.

Computerworld  >   TrustRadius survey  >  The People of Color in Tech Report 2020 [pie charts] IDG / TrustRadius

Atlanta has grown more diverse than San Francisco or Austin

Location correlates to improved diversity, with some metro areas showing greater perceived diversity gains than others. Respondents in two metro areas highly associated with the greater Silicon Valley tech-provider industry — Austin, Texas, and San Francisco — saw less improvement in perceived diversity gains than several other areas.

TrustRadius theorizes that the high cost of living in those tech-provider-heavy areas makes it less likely that minorities can afford to live there, given that minorities often make less than whites in the U.S. The common focus on hiring people from elite universities by Silicon Valley companies could be another factor, also reflecting underlying economic inequality.

Here’s the breakdown of where respondents saw an improvement in diversity over the last decade, from most to least. Note that there were not enough respondents from several metro areas typically associated with the tech industry, such as Seattle, San Diego, and Portland, Oregon, to be included in this breakdown.

  1. Atlanta: 85%
  2. Dallas-Fort Worth: 72%
  3. Chicago: 71%
  4. Boston: 68%
  5. New York: 64%
  6. Los Angeles: 59%
  7. Denver: 57%
  8. San Francisco: 56%
  9. Austin, Texas: 52%

Tech execs are less diverse

Ethnic diversity remains low at the executive level in the industry, according to the TrustRadius. In the survey, only 21% of respondents said at least a quarter of their executives were people of color, while 67% said it was less than a quarter. By comparison, 40% of the U.S. population is non-white. (I could not find data on overall representation of minorities as executives across all industries to see whether the tech industry is worse, the same, or better than average in this regard.)

The few stats that are available suggest that the tech industry is likely worse than average. But those stats tend to be based on Silicon Valley data, and Silicon Valley is less diverse than IT at large.

Discrimination and poor racial quality efforts continue

According to the survey, people of color face discrimination at work. Respondents reported a difference in discrimination at work based on their ethnicity: Of whites, 19% reported issues due to their race or ethnicity, while 43% of people of color said they faced such issues. (All the whites that reported discrimination had ethnic backgrounds, such as Latinx or Middle Eastern, despite self-reporting as white.)

Tech industry seen as doing too little to support equality

Respondents also said the tech industry is doing too little to address racial inequality: 67% want the tech industry to do more, 18% said the industry has been doing enough, and 15% say it's doing too much. People of color were more likely to say more work is needed to address racial inequality: 71% say more is needed, 16% see the efforts as enough, and 13% see the effort as too much.

TrustRadius notes that 55% of those who think the tech industry is doing too much are non-Hispanic whites, signaling possible resistance to meaningful change by the group that represents the majority of the tech industry populace. Still, a majority of whites — 60% — want the tech industry to do more to address racial inequality.

People of color struggle to find mentors

The survey also found that non-white people found it more difficult to find a mentor than whites. Even Asians, who are overrepresented in the industry, found it more difficult to get mentors. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Blacks: 63% found it more difficult
  • Indigenous: 52%
  • Latinx: 45%
  • Asian: 41%
  • white: 28%

Whites are blind to their biases

Unconscious bias likely plays a role, the TrustRadius survey found: Only 27% of whites thought unconscious bias affects hiring, versus the 45% of people of color who think that. For many whites, racial inequities just aren’t seen and don’t have direct impact on them, which may explain that whites are more satisfied with how their companies handle racial inequities — and why 64.6% of whites are more comfortable discussing racial issues with HR than the 50.5% of people of color who say they are.

How diversity programs are viewed

Even before the Floyd death and other killings of Blacks in 2020 by police, U.S. business — including the tech industry — has known its ranks didn’t reflect American society’s makeup. The issue starts early, with poverty constricting educational opportunities, leading to fewer minorities with the “right” degrees from the “right” schools and without the wherewithal to take internships — all are useful in making long-term professional connections.

As a result, diversity programs have been around since the 1970s for women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, the disabled, military veterans, and religious minorities to varying degrees over time.

Diversity programs are not yet the norm

But 56% of the TrustRadius survey respondents say that their companies have no executive or group focused on diversity-and-inclusion (D&I) issues.

Still, that stat may not be as bad as it first seems: The larger the company, the more likely it has a D&I executive or group. Smaller businesses may not have the budget for such a formal role or group and may rely on HR to tackle the issue. Still, TrustRadius warns that startups and small companies shouldn’t cry “no budget” to avoid D&I efforts, pointing to research that shows more-diverse companies are more profitable than their less-diverse peers.

Diversity programs are seen as effective by staff, not by execs

Are D&I programs effective? The TrustRadius respondents say they are:

  • Extremely effective: 18%
  • Very effective: 23%
  • Effective: 20%
  • Somewhat effective: 18%
  • A little bit effective: 8%
  • Not at all effective: 14%

Both whites and people of color viewed the effectiveness of their companies’ D&I efforts at similar rates: 61% for whites and 62% for people of color.

However, tech CEOs and founders are less impressed with D&I efforts; just 51% saying they are effective, reflecting a gap between Silicon Valley and the rest of the tech industry about the importance of diversity.

What people of color want whites to do and know

Still, people of color want their companies to increase their diversity recruitment — at 52%, it was the top way they want to see their companies support them.

TrustRadius also asked non-white respondents what their white colleagues should know about people of color. The most common answers in this freeform question were:

  • Providing feedback on minorities’ communication style is a common form of micro-aggression, the subtle, sometimes unintentional cues that signal racist attitudes and demotivate people of color.
  • Stereotypes and unconscious behavior affect who gets hired and who gets promoted, and those common biases work against people of color.
  • whites believe they are equitable and struggle to believe they are participants in racism or that they enable it despite their own anti-racist views. As a result, even if they take formal actions like instituting D&I programs, there is little practical or sustained result.

Silicon Valley remains whiter than the rest of tech

Although much attention is focused on diversity in Silicon Valley — and so many promises have been made by Silicon Valley to get better — the reality on the ground is poor. Not only is Silicon Valley just 5% people of color, the startups that could lead the next generations are helmed by an even whiter crew: 1.4% are people of color, according to a 2017 survey. And a 2019 survey by Morgan Stanley says that investing in diverse entrepreneurs is a priority for just 40% of VC firms. Morgan Stanley also noted that VC firms have fewer people of color and fewer women than other types of firms.

So it’s not a surprise that the TrustRadius survey found 41% of respondents are very concerned about the funding gap for startups owned by people of color, and another 24% were fairly concerned. But perhaps surprising was that the more senior the respondents, the less concerned they were about VC funding for people of color — the top leaders such as CEOs, founders, and principals were the least concerned about such VC funding: 53% of these top leaders were concerned, versus 65% of all respondents. Fullly 80% of Black respondents were concerned about the funding gap.

How ethnic minorities in tech see themselves

Language affects perception, and the language around ethnicity in the U.S. has evolved considerably over the years. “Negro” became “Colored” became “Black” became “African-American” and now seems to be becoming “Black” again, for example. And “Latino” (more commonly “Latinx” today so as not to be male-specific) and “Hispanic” have gone back and forth in usage.

So what do ethnic minorities call themselves? “Minorities” isn’t the first choice, according to TrustRadius. “People of color” is the preferred term for 29%, followed by “BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)” by 22%, and then “minorities” by 20%. Another 22% have no preference. And just 7% want to be called by their specific ethnicity, such as Black, Latinx, or Native or Indigenous.

white people seemed unsure of what to call people of color, with 40% saying they had no preferred term. TrustRadius theorizes that whites generally want minorities to decide what they want to be called rather than impose a term.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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