Black History Month: More Awareness But Slow Diversity Progress in Tech

It’s Black History Month, which means it’s a good time to look at the diversity numbers within the tech industry. Although tech companies of all sizes have pledged to take significant steps to improve the diversity of their respective workforces, progress has been slow over the past several years. Some highly publicized events over the past 12 months have also called into question whether some companies can effectively change course when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

There are signs that companies’ diversity work is making some progress. For example, new data from Netflix shows that the percentage of Black Netflix employees in the U.S. has climbed from 8.6 percent to 10.7 percent over the past two years. Black leadership within the company rose from 10.9 percent to 13.3 percent over that period.  

It’s a similar story at other big tech companies, according to Protocol’s extensive Diversity Tracker, which shows the percentage of Black employees (as well as those from other underrepresented groups) has ticked up only a few points over the past few years. At Facebook, the percentage of Black employees stood at 4.4 percent in 2021, up from 2 percent in 2014. At Microsoft, Black employees constitute 5.4 percent of the workforce. 

Promoting diversity is more than just something that makes a company look good. At a time of remarkably low tech unemployment, a more diverse workplace can often prove the key to retentionWiley recently surveyed 2,030 technologists between the ages of 18 and 28, 50 percent of whom indicated they would potentially leave their current position because their company’s culture “made them feel uncomfortable.” Around 68 percent of them said those uncomfortable feelings stemmed from “their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or neurodevelopmental condition.” Once those technologists walk out the door, they take their knowledge (both technical and institutional) with them—which potentially means big trouble for managers and projects.

To boost diversity (and retention), Wiley’s report suggested all demographics be encouraged to consider a STEM career at an early age: “Without this encouragement, they may later lack the STEM-based qualifications required by a lot of entry level roles if they choose to pursue a career in the field.”

Meanwhile, another study from Gartner suggested that organizations seeking to boost and retain diverse workforces should actively attempt to identify the needs of different types of employees, as well as invest in programs to meet those needs.

Indeed, there’s still much work to be done—as illuminated by some high-profile incidents over the past year. For example, in December 2020, Timnit Gebru, who was co-lead of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, publicly claimed that Google management asked her to remove her name from a paper suggesting that a large-scale A.I. language model (LLM) can generate biased results. She went on to claim that management fired her when she refused. The resulting firestorm eventually drew a public apology from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and cast a spotlight on the search-engine giant’s diversity policies. And that was by no means the only diversity-related crisis in tech; but in general, there’s also been a lot of focus on fixing things.