For much of his career, LeRon L. Barton has often been the only Black worker in the office.
Barton has worked in the technology sector for more than 20 years. But over that time, there has been little change in the number of Black employees at each company, as he explained in a 2021 blog for Harvard Business Review.
“Being Black in tech, like being Black in America, is an exercise of mental toughness,” Barton wrote. “Your mind is constantly wondering, ‘How long can I last?’ “
Black workers have long been underrepresented in the tech industry. In 2014, Google published the first racial and gender breakdown of its workforce, showing that 1.9 percent of workers were Black. Seven years later, just 4.4 percent of its workforce was Black.
In 2018, Black workers accounted for nearly 12 percent of the total U.S. workforce but only 8 percent of tech workers, according to the think tank Brookings Institution.
“To create real change, much work still needs to be done at the organizational and leadership levels,” Barton said. “At the same time, Black people cannot afford to wait around for this change to take place. We deserve to take up space, move up and thrive in Big Tech, and while we fight for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DE&I) workspaces, we should.”
Several recent studies have assessed the state of Black workers in tech and provide strategies for increasing their representation in the industry. Business leaders and HR professionals play a key role in supporting these efforts.
Low Representation, Short Tenures
In 2021, digital strategy firm Valence conducted a study with Russell Reynolds Associates, a management consulting company, to better understand barriers influencing the lack of Black representation in tech companies.
The results of their report, published this year, indicate that tenures in tech organizations are much shorter for Black workers than for non-Black workers. It also showed that Black employees move between companies more often than their non-Black counterparts.
Nearly half (47 percent) of Black tech workers and 28 percent of non-Black employees strongly agree that they must frequently switch companies to seek growth in their career, the report found.
“We learned that Black technology professionals consistently experience systemic barriers to growth, which was disappointing but not surprising,” said Guy Primus, chief executive officer at Valence. “When I think about my experiences and those of my peers, I am reminded of how far we still have to go.”
Primus explained that Black tech workers rarely have visible role models to aspire to, learn from and emulate in the tech industry. As a result, there are fewer lived experiences for Black employees to draw upon, and workplaces perpetuate systems that work better for white employees.
“A lack of role models and even peers means that Black employees are less likely to have a valued and trusted workplace community,” he said. “We’re just as capable as everyone else on the team, but we’re more likely to be misunderstood, reluctant to ask for help or feel disconnected from the work.”
In February, the nonprofit Jobs for the Future (JFF) released a report highlighting the strategies of organizations that have successfully advanced Black talent in tech and digital careers.
“We wanted to identify models with the potential to break through and help to eliminate these pernicious racial equity gaps in the technology sector,” said Michael Collins, a higher education and workforce expert who leads JFF’s work on racial economic equity. “We wanted to go a level deeper and focus on solutions.”
The JFF report suggested that successful strategies for advancing Black workers include investing in recruitment, hiring and internal mobility efforts; supporting efforts to increase the representation of Black workers on the boards of tech companies; and increasing support for Black tech founders.
The Valence study made similar conclusions, noting that companies should also invest in more widespread training on inclusive leadership for managers to improve retention rates among Black workers in tech.
But successful models go beyond delivering education and training: They also provide opportunities for mentorship, sponsorship and professional learning communities that allow technologists of color to develop the career capital and professional connections needed to thrive.
“Black professionals would benefit from coaching, given what the [Valence] survey shows about rates of turnover, short tenures and the ‘must-move’ mindset that Black employees have,” Primus said.
Portia Kibble Smith, the head of DE&I at the software development company Karat, suggested that companies ease the resume-screening criteria, especially if those include attendance at a specific set of schools, four-year degree requirements or previous tech experience. This could help more Black workers enter the tech industry.
She also implored HR professionals to increase transparency during the interview process and allow candidates to redo their interviews if necessary, which could benefit Black candidates seeking tech positions.
“For hundreds of years in the U.S., Black people have innovated and disrupted every industry and facet of American life,” Smith said. “We need Black brilliance and critical perspectives at the leading tech companies that influence how we all live, so the future is bright for all of us.”