The tech industry makes a lot of promises. The promise of continuous innovation. The promise of a fulfilling career. The promise of an inclusive work environment. Black History Month is a timely reminder for us to look back and wonder: Are those promises actually being kept?
How inclusive are work environments in which the percentages of Black employees remain in single digits? It seems every year that people in the industry talk about the need for greater diversity efforts with little to show for it.
So what can be done to make measurable progress on the issue? It’s simple. Reach out to us. Talk to us. Hire us. Unfortunately, these conversations are too often left unspoken, so it’s time to look ahead at the ways the tech industry can better uplift Black professionals.
A diversity pledge is not enough
Let’s revisit that disappointing statistic. In 2014, Silicon Valley’s biggest companies began releasing diversity reports and pledging to acknowledge the racial disparity in the industry. In the five years following, however, little was done to improve diversity. Apple, Google and Microsoft had only increased their number of Black employees by less than one percent as of 2019.
What businesses need to understand is that diversity initiatives can’t be one-offs. It’s a constant and ongoing process of fighting subconscious biases in recruitment, training, and advancement. Talking about diversity makes for great PR, but without the work being done in the background to support it, those words ring hollow and leave so many talented Black individuals without the opportunities to fulfill their potential.
Diversity as a core value and goal
Studies have repeatedly shown that more diverse teams lead to higher revenue. Companies should have long been regarding diversity as a core goal not only in terms of demographics and representation, but also in terms of business objectives. Those that do, set themselves up to thrive, as in the case of Exabeam.
In 2013, when Exabeam was founded, it created ExaGals, an initiative to support and empower women within the company and in the tech community at large. In 2020, we formed the CommUNITY Council with the mission to create an environment that becomes more diverse, inclusive, and aware of the unique experiences of underrepresented groups within and outside of Exabeam. These initiatives are joined by our broader Exabeam Cares program that aims to give back to the community through education and opportunities for underrepresented groups in the industry.
MasterCard is another company that has continually set the bar for diversity in the tech industry. The company’s commitment to equal pay, community outreach and equitable employee benefits has made it a mainstay in DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity lists year after year. In January, MasterCard demonstrated that commitment yet again through a $5 million grant to Howard University’s new Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics, which aims to train future data scientists to fight data and AI biases proven to hold Black people back and level the playing field for Black communities.
Businesses can also make a lot of progress by being creative in diversifying the talent pool. They can establish scholarships for students from low-income households and other marginalized backgrounds and visit schools in underserved communities to meet students where they are. It’s especially important to reach out to students when they’re young, as 80 percent of students will have made up their mind on their perceived ability in math and science by the eighth grade.
Moreover, companies should expand recruitment efforts to include candidates with less conventional educations such as GEDs and community college. These young professionals are often people of color who may be just as qualified but didn’t have access to the same opportunities as others or had to turn their attention to family emergencies.
The value of mentorship
The tech industry can be a daunting place for people of color and even more so for Black women and other women of color. It’s a sector full of strong personalities that can make us feel intimidated and out of place. I’m glad to have been able to call upon various informal mentors early in my career whenever I wanted to discuss strategies for meetings, career growth and changing the industry. They helped me stay focused and confident in the work I was doing, which has led me to where I am today.
Executive leadership also has the power to take this a step further by establishing formal mentorship programs tailored to underrepresented groups so that they don’t always feel the onus is on them to establish those relationships.
Having taken on the mentor role myself at this stage in my career, I can attest that it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. I learn so much from the people I mentor, and seeing them grow and progress in their careers fills me with enormous pride. I am fortunate enough to have former mentees stay in touch with how their lives are going or to ask for advice, which is a testament to the impact and value mentorship provides to the people who need it most.
Black History Month: Taking action beyond the tech industry
When Black History Month first came around, I was worried that it would eventually fade out of scope, but I’m glad to see its persistence within our cultural landscape. It’s crucial to the understanding of our history as a country to learn about the Black historical figures and events that contributed to where we are today.
In order to keep moving forward, Black History Month must also be a call to action across technology and all other industries to address inequalities that continue to exist overtly, subtly and even covertly. There’s the way that media and the news perpetuate subliminal racial stereotypes, or the stark differences in the way each state’s school textbooks cover Black history. When we don’t have conversations on why issues like these are problematic, they latch on, become part of the collective unconscious, and are viewed as acceptable in our society.
We should be celebrating and sharing Black voices, Black ideas and Black cultures so the world can see that we are unique, multi-faceted individuals not bound by a single look or perspective and certainly not hiding from who we are. To do so, I encourage company executives to pledge this year to give Black people the power to tell their own stories, tread their own paths and pursue their own ambitions in the tech industry and beyond. We’ve come too far to settle for anything less.
Wanda Miles is manager, PMO at Exabeam.