Racism in tech runs deep

A reader reminds senior writer Sharon Florentine that while racial progress has been slowly made over the decades, racism still exists in a big way in our nation and in tech.

Racism in tech runs deep
Thinkstock

I got an email this morning from a person asking me for help with his job search. This person has a PhD and an MBA, and spent 20-some years in the IT industry working his way up through various leadership roles. This person had been trying to make the next career move into a leadership role, like CIO or CTO, but wasn't having any luck. "…it's been a complete fiasco," he said. And then, this last sentence brought me almost to tears.

"I'm beginning to think it's because I'm black. Can you please help?"

The fact that this incredibly accomplished person felt that his only option was to reach out to me, a writer, to help with his job search speaks volumes.

Disclaimer: I cannot say with 100 percent certainty that this person is not landing a C-level role because of their race; the roles are hard to come by and many of them are landed because of networking. But as much as I want to believe it has nothing to do with his race, I'm not that naïve, and I sincerely doubt this person was, either.

Racism is still prevalent in 2017 and -- whether unconscious or not -- bias could very well play a role in why this IT professional is having such a problem landing a job.

Minorities underrepresented in tech

A report titled, "Breaking the Mold: Investing in Racial Diversity in Tech" from nonprofit Open MIC, an organization that works toward creating diverse and inclusive media and communications and corporate culture, highlights existing data showing that black, Latino and native Americans are unrepresented in the tech industry by 16 percent to 18 percent compared to their presence in the U.S. labor force overall.

A recent survey from Indeed of 1,002 currently employed technology professionals revealed that 52 percent of nonwhite/non-asian respondents witnessed non-inclusive behavior that made them uncomfortable at their current company. When asked if they'd ever been made to feel personally uncomfortable at their current workplace because of their race, gender, age, religious affiliation or sexual orientation, 41 percent of non-asian/nonwhites say they had; only 24 percent of whites say the same. And 32 percent of nonwhite/non-asian respondents say they felt discriminated against due to their race, gender, age, religious affiliation or sexual orientation in their current workplace.

This is why it's hard for companies not just to recruit, but to hire and retain people from races other than white. It's not just about being blatantly discriminatory -- racism is so systemic and so much a part of the power structure and the cultural norms of this country that white people often don't realize just how much we benefit. So, we must start by recognizing our own privilege and how racism has benefitted us.

We must start by questioning everything we think we know about "meritocracy" and understand that many times, we're given opportunities or chosen for a job just because of an unconscious bias based on the color of our skin. We have to do the work to understand that, and then we have to work to change it.

Making a change

How do we change that? Well, first, we must listen. We have to hear what people of color have are saying: that the deck is stacked against them. We must listen as they tell us exactly how that impacts them, their opportunities, their families, their communities, their relationships, their own emotional and physical well-being.

It's uncomfortable. But we have to be willing to sit with that discomfort -- it's really nothing in the face of the harm that's been done to black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian and other communities. Multiply that discomfort by thousands and you might come close to feeling what people of color experience daily, just for existing.

Now. That's very different from saying we need to swoop in and save people of color -- that's just as bad. Nobody needs a white savior. But we do need to listen when we're told how to help and what we can do -- and then we need to act on that. We do need to recognize our privilege and figure out how to use that to amplify the voices of people of color, because our privilege means we're taken more seriously when we speak out.

What does that look like? Sometimes it looks like a white person calling out another white person publicly for making racist and discriminatory comments. Sometimes it looks like advocating for your colleague who deserves that promotion but keeps being passed over.

As Hannah Lucal, associate director for Open MIC,says:

"What we're really talking about when we talk about race is power. The systemic racial bias that's been going on throughout history is about who holds the power -- and dismantling those entrenched structures means asking hard questions, like 'what does perpetuating racial bias look like in hiring, in our corporate communications, on our board, in how we relate to investors? How are those structures hidden? What decisions are we making that are perpetuating that bias and that power structure?' White people in leadership have to identify their own stake in this work; both personal responsibility and organizational responsibility as well as industry-wide responsibility. White people created this, and we are still the ones with the power. We are still the ones setting the norms and standards, the culture and the tone for the way companies in this industry function -- so we have to be the ones to make all of that change," Lucal says.

Related Video

NEW! Download the State of the CIO 2017 report