Silicon Valley’s tech industry could be a lonely place for black people.
Most tech companies’ workforce heavily skew towards white male workers, with blacks making up less than 5% of the total.
We went through Quora and other interviews to find out what people say about being black in Silicon Valley’s tech scene.
Here’s what people say about it:
Silicon Valley’s diversity problem has been well-documented over the past few years. Most tech workers are white or Asian men. There are not a whole lot of women or black people in the industry.
A lot of tech companies started reporting their “diversity” figures to show the racial breakdown of their workforce. In most cases, black people represent less than 2% of the total. For example, Google and Yahoo disclosed that their workforces were 1% black last year, while Twitter was close to 0%. Earlier this month, Facebook said only 2% of its US workforce was black.
In fact, only around 1% of the tech employees in the Bay Area are black, local historian and diversity advocate John William Templeton told the NY Times.
- Facebook/Life at Google
Not seeing a lot of people that look like you can make Silicon Valley a lonely place, according to Makinde Adeagbo, a black software engineer who’s worked at Facebook, Dropbox, and Pinterest. But it hasn’t affected his day-to-day life as an engineer.
- Karyne Levy/Business Insider
“Outside of a few sporadic, and interesting, cases, my race has not affected my day to day life as an engineer. I haven’t felt like my ideas or viewpoints were looked down upon because of my race…Black engineers come together to help one another reach their career goals and build a deep sense of community.”
Karim Liman-Tinguiri, a black software engineer at Tesla, agrees. He says his skin color hasn’t affected his work life at all.
- Tesla Motors
“Nothing special really. I just showed up everyday and coded like everyone else. I have never really felt like I was being treated differently (neither positively nor negatively).” – Karim Liman-Tinguiri
Some of that may have to do with the engineering worldview that’s common in Silicon Valley, which values people based on their skills and how well they accomplish particular tasks.
- Life is Good
“One thing I have noticed about being black in Silicon Valley is that (and I am generalizing) people tend to rely less on stereotypes when assessing people for the first time…The best way to describe the difference is that I feel far less racial tension in Silicon Valley. I don’t feel like I need to carry the ‘wait was that racist?’ chip on my shoulder like I have had to do living in other places.” – Henry Robinson
Or the fact that Silicon Valley attracts people from all over the world.
“Maybe it’s because the Valley attracts the highly-skilled from all over the world. Maybe it’s because I live in the bluer area of the state. Maybe it’s because everyone is highly educated…Yes, from time to time I feel like the only black man or the only black family in the room/group/etc., but I do not feel as if I am treated differently or defined by that.” – Jacob Vincent
Some people believe racial discrimination really isn’t an issue in Silicon Valley at all. Rather, being a woman presents more challenges.
“I must say, though, that I feel that being a woman presents more challenges, or at least the disparity seems more apparent. In many areas women represent a higher percentage of the workforce, yet occupy none or very little C-level positions…In many ways, it is like a good ol’ boys’ club, and whether you are Black American or not, if you are male, you seem to be regarded, or rewarded, more highly.” – Anonymous
Erica Baker, a black female engineer at Slack, sums it up like this: “Isolating, but not immediate. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I feel bad.’ It takes a while; it’s a slow buildup of pain that you’re feeling, because you’re so isolated, but you can’t put your finger on the isolation.”
- REUTERS/Bruno Domingos
In any case, black representation in Silicon Valley is embarrassingly low. And that means the tech industry is not taking advantage of a race group that’s produced some of the most talented people ever. From Microsoft chairman John Thompson and Andreessen Horowitz’s special advisor Ken Coleman to Walker & Company’s Tristan Walker and Apple’s rising star Bozoma Saint John, there have been a lot of talented black people in tech.
- Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Ken Coleman, who’s also venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s mentor, says the society gave the tech industry a pass on diversity because there are already so many Asians and East Indians in the sector. “We have so many Asians and East Indians that I think people have said, well, that’s diversity, so it’s not an issue,” he says.
The more common excuse is to blame the lack of supply: there simply aren’t enough blacks getting advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM. “A lot of African-Americans want to grow up to be LeBron James, Jay Z or Barack Obama,” CNN’s Van Jones told the NY Times. “They don’t hear about David Drummond at Google, who is at the center of one of the biggest companies in the world.”
- Jason Miller/Getty
That may be true, but some people believe tech companies are just not trying hard enough. “I wish that tech leaders would just be honest and admit that they’ve made tech culture so exclusive and toxic…Ignoring the fact that underrepresented talent exists shows me that they don’t care about diversity and they don’t want us working in tech,” Kaya Thomas, a black woman studying computer science at Dartmouth College, wrote in a blog post.
- Alex Holyoake/Flickr
In fact, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, most Silicon Valley tech firms have less than 2% black employees, while 4.4% of master’s degrees in engineering and 3.6% of the engineering Ph.D.s in 2014 in the US were earned by black people.
To solve the problem, a number of tech companies are taking action. Intel, for example, plans to spend $300 million to fix gender and racial imbalance in the tech workforce. But Intel CEO Brian Krzanich says he’s faced a lot of pushback from white employees, too. “There’s been a bit of resistance. We’ve even had a few threats and things like that on some of our leadership team around our position on diversity and inclusion,” he says.
- Reuters/Albert Gea
This isn’t a problem that can just be solved by simply pumping money into it, according to Slack’s Erica Baker.
“It’s not a single-issue problem. It’s the diversity. It’s the inclusion. It’s the bias. It’s the lack of equity. It’s the lack of promotions. It’s all of the above. There are so many different problems that need to be addressed, and saying any one is bigger than the other is doing a disservice to the rest. They’re all equally important, and they all need to be addressed. It’s not an easy thing to be fixed, but people want it to be easy,” Baker says.
Instead, the tech community needs to raise awareness of the problem and make it a priority across the whole industry. “The first step is to be woke and make that a priority. I want to understand the systemic injustices that are facing our society as a whole and how they affect my company. That’s the first step,” Baker says.