The Deck Is Stacked Against Black Women in Tech

It’s time to put the pipeline myth to rest and start doing the work to bring about change.
Tammy Xu
August 31, 2020
Updated: September 2, 2020
Tammy Xu
August 31, 2020
Updated: September 2, 2020

“It’s a pipeline problem.” That’s a common refrain when the conversation turns to why the share of Black tech workers is so low. Last year, Wired reported that the numbers hadn’t improved much in the past five years at the country’s biggest tech companies, who started releasing diversity numbers in 2014 and pledged to do better.

But Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code2040, a non-profit that works to achieve parity for Black and Latinx workers in tech, said the pipeline argument doesn’t hold up, because far more Black students graduate with computer science degrees than are in the tech workforce, and there are far more open positions in tech than there are graduates to fill them.

“The pipeline problem is an American pipeline problem — there are 700,000 open tech roles in the country, and only 56,000 computer science graduates,” Monterroso said. “And even with that pipeline problem, high-wage work is unwilling to hire Black and Latinx talent that exists. That’s the problem.”

Biased hiring processes limit Black workers’ opportunities in tech. Even when they do land tech jobs, Black women can encounter many challenges their coworkers don’t, ranging from extra personal and work responsibilities to cultural misunderstanding and biases at work, as well as the ongoing effects of historic disinvestment and lack of generational wealth.

Despite these many challenges, Black women in tech have been on the forefront of coming up with solutions, both pushing for change within companies and creating the change themselves.

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Biased Hiring Processes Take Many Forms

A New York Times study from 2016 found that Black and Hispanic workers who graduated with computer science or engineering degrees were more likely than their white and Asian counterparts to hold jobs outside the fields of technology or engineering. A significant part of the disparity may be due to bias in companies’ recruiting practices.

“Why is it that the job description does not actually match the job?” said Alexandria Butler, founder of Sista Circle, a solidarity network for Black women in tech, about companies’ descriptions in job ads.

Many job descriptions ask for far more qualifications than necessary, adding up to more of a wishlist than a list of requirements. While people of privilege may apply even though they only fit a couple of the descriptions, an intimidating list of requirements can deter other suitable candidates.

“I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri,” Butler said. “I was always taught that I had to be two to three times better than my white counterparts to get the same thing as them, because that’s how racism works ... but when I’m reading the job description and it has five things, if I don’t have those five things, I’m not going to apply.”

Much of the time, candidates are hired even though they don’t fulfill every job “requirement” — but it’s impossible to get the job if you are deterred from applying.

“Stanford is not a competency, but it is often treated as if it is.”

Monterroso said hiring biases aren’t limited to job descriptions. She cited companies’ reliance on candidates’ academic backgrounds and performance on tricky programming interviews as additional examples. They are poor predictors of work performance, and another way the scales are tipped against Black and Latinx applicants, she said.

“Stanford is not a competency, but it is often treated as if it is,” Monterroso said.

The racial wealth gap, with white families’ median net worth nearly 10 times that of Black and Latinx families’, means that many Black and Latinx students lack resources to help them gain admission to, or pay for, prestigious colleges, she said. Furthermore, it may be difficult for students who simultaneously work to pay for school to maintain high GPAs.

Monterroso said many programming interviews, which can involve logic puzzles or obscure software concepts, are similarly inaccurate and biased.

Those types of exams privilege “a certain amount of trivia knowledge that’s taught at specific schools, over what it will be like for them to do work in the workplace,” she said. “We are using the same kind of qualifiers for tech interviewing that we use for standardized tests, which have repeatedly shown they are not advantageous for Black and Latinx students.”

Notoriously difficult programming interviews have given rise to a coding interview prep industry — mirroring the standardized test prep industry — that again benefits already-privileged candidates who have time and money to spend on preparation.

“Evaluate the systems and processes that you’re using to screen and ensure that they are competency based, rather than category based,” Monterroso said.

 

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Managers Can Sabotage Diversity Efforts

But no matter how carefully companies work to remove bias from their hiring processes — posting job ads without extravagant requirements, prioritizing programming and teamwork skills over knowledge of trivia — the process will still be biased if hiring managers do not support the changes.

Code2040 runs a career accelerator program for Black and Latinx computer science students, and companies partner with the organization to hire interns from the program. Sometimes, partner companies have a difficult time finding a suitable intern to hire.

“When data is pulled and we start to ask questions, it becomes very clear very quickly that the experiences our students are having interviewing are tantamount to a hazing ritual,” Monterroso said. “It’s everything from folks being antagonistic to the interviewee, really blatantly stating their lack of hope that the person will get through this.”

“The experiences our students are having interviewing are tantamount to a hazing ritual.”

Monterroso said interviewers can make candidates feel bad for asking too many questions, or for not asking enough questions. Interviewers acted coldly, or used “gotcha-style” interview questions.

If managers have fundamental disagreements with a company’s decision to diversify, there should be consequences, Monterroso said. A company’s commitment toward diversity and inclusion needs to be tracked and evaluated like any other goal of the company.

“When you refuse and claim to have an intellectual viewpoint over why the company should not be able to diversify, that’s a difference of strategic opinion,” she said. “And in the same way, if you refused to work on a mobile-first project because you would rather work on a desktop application, that’s the same kind of concern we have here.... Leaving it up to debate makes it an auxiliary function.”

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Early Career Workers Have Fewer Connections in Tech

As part of an underrepresented group in tech, Black jobseekers can also be disadvantaged if employers are making hiring decisions based on the “type” of people they have hired before. Black early career workers are also less likely to have acquaintances who can refer them to open positions than white and Asian workers.

B. Pagels-Minor, a Black liberal arts graduate from Northwestern University who became a software product manager after a few years in the workforce, ran into this issue.

“Disproportionately, Black people don’t have those types of levers,” Pagels-Minor said, referring to connections within the industry. “The only way that we can get into a place is if we have specific and substantial experience. Especially if you’re starting off, you don’t have that experience, and you don’t have those levers, so you’re automatically getting discounted.”

Pagels-Minor had job hunting experiences that varied with the region of the country. They felt that, in places like Chicago, dominated by older industries like insurance and finance, employers were more skeptical of candidates who didn’t have the educational background they were expecting and didn’t look like the majority of their past employees.

“When a person like me came in, who didn’t have that experience they were specifically looking for, the only thing they could rate me on is, ‘Do I believe this person can do this work?’” Pagels-Minor said. “And I didn’t look like anyone that they had normally seen do that work.”

 

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Employees Want to See Themselves at a Company

The work of supporting underrepresented groups in tech doesn’t stop at the point of hire. After all, employees spend far more time working within a company than they do in the hiring process.

A 2017 report by the Kapor Center, an organization in California that works to make tech more diverse and inclusive, looked into reasons why employees voluntarily left jobs at tech companies. It found that experiencing or observing unfairness in the workplace was more correlated with turnover among underrepresented groups. The report indicated that company culture greatly affects a company’s ability to retain those employees.

Jacinta Mathis and Netta Jenkins founded Dipper in 2019, with the vision of creating a safe space where people could share their perspectives on what it’s like to work at particular companies as a person of color.

“We found that, in our circles, people would ping us all the time, even people we don’t know,” Mathis said. “[They] just said, ‘Hey, what’s it like to work here?’ It is because we don’t really have these spaces where there is a representation of people who look like us — kind of that ‘for us, by us’ perspective on what it’s like to work in a place.”

“A lot of people are wondering, ‘Are there other people like you there?’”

These prospective employees were interested in the composition of a company’s workforce, from low-level positions all the way up to the executive level, and in how the demographics of a company could affect their personal experiences working there.

“A lot of people are wondering, ‘Are there other people like you there?’” Mathis said. “I think people are looking for their peers to be reflective of how they culturally identify and be able to connect with people on that level.”

It can also be difficult to push for positive change within a company without support. Employees may feel more comfortable at a company with a diverse workforce not only because they see that it’s possible to thrive there, but also because they would have a support system if ever there were a problem.

“That’s really the core of how Netta and I operate,” Mathis said. “You can complain, you can tell me all your lows, I’ll cheer you on, we’ll celebrate together. But then it’s like, we’re also holding each other accountable, to either hold someone else accountable for the solution or for us to find the solution.”

 

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Show Appreciation for ERGs and D&I Departments

Employee resource groups (ERG) at companies can be a valuable resource for making employees feel supported. For Butler, the founder of Sista Circle who has worked in tech her entire career, ERGs have been important both personally and professionally.

“Having a place where you can come together and see yourself — even if there’s very few of you — is very impactful and very important,” Butler said. “Being able to be connected to people at the company that you would not get a chance to, usually, is very important.... The leaders of employee resource groups have a powerful stance in the company, because they can be in rooms with leadership and have honest conversations. And not only do you get to help your community, but that could also just help your career.”

Butler said that the downside is if leadership puts the company’s responsibilities for diversity and inclusion initiatives on the ERG. That unfairly burdens the members of ERG groups, who are effectively doing extra work without compensation.

“D&I people doing this work every day, they are true freedom fighters, and they are sacrificing so much.”

“When you talk to a lot of ERG leads and a lot of people in ERGs behind closed doors, you’ll hear stories of them literally working two jobs — working the job that they work at the company, but then also doing the ERG work,” she said. “Why are we using ERGs like that when we can hire people for the diversity and inclusion (D&I) department? You can just put more financial backing into a D&I department, and have more funding and therefore more headcount to work on all this amazing stuff.”

But even within D&I departments, which usually are led by people of color, the burden of work can be challenging. D&I departments are capable of turning individual stories into systemic change within companies, but that can be a heavy responsibility, Butler said. After George Floyd was killed, D&I departments were suddenly under more pressure than ever as companies scrambled to release statements and implement changes.

“Being a human, being a Black human, and then having to come to work and then handling all these other humans’ emotions — because that’s your job, right? But who’s holding space for you?” Butler said. “I don’t think we talk enough about that. D&I people doing this work every day, they are true freedom fighters, and they are sacrificing so much.... They’re literally changing the landscape. They’re literally changing my career as we speak, and I’m very grateful.”

 

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Learning Different Cultural Languages

Other aspects of company culture that may seem superficial can also be important to employee satisfaction. Mathis and Jenkins observed that, while many tech companies advertise relaxed company attire — such as shorts and flip flops — as a perk of the job, Black women still often receive unwanted attention for things like choosing to change up their hairstyles.

Pagels-Minor referred to the gap that can exist between Black employees and their coworkers as lack of knowledge for a cultural language.

“This is a random example, but I think it’s a great example,” Pagels-Minor said. “So the day that Prince died, I happened to still be working. I was the only Black person on my team, and I think I was the only Black person on my entire floor. I found out he died, and I was very upset. I started texting my friends, but there were no Black people around me.... One of my coworkers was like, ‘You’re being dramatic.’”

But for Pagels-Minor, Prince was “one of the few really great examples of hope for Black people,” and his death greatly affected them.

“You need to be putting different lenses on based on cultural norms, so you can better translate their skills and how they can be valuable.”

“The cultural language is not even there,” Pagels-Minor said. “It’s like we’re literally speaking two different languages. Because of that, it becomes so difficult to impress upon companies that this isn’t a Black or Asian or Latinx thing — it’s a humanity thing. You need to be putting different lenses on based on cultural norms, so you can better translate their skills and how they can be valuable.”

Coworkers’ lack of a shared cultural language and biases toward Black employees can have much more harmful effects as well.

“One of the big issues is the way Black women are perceived, because of their hair or because of the way they talk,” Pagels-Minor said. “I’ve literally been in spaces where I’ve heard managers say that this Black woman is very aggressive. And I was like, she was talking in a completely reasonable tone, she just happened to disagree with you.”

Pagels-Minor described how the hiring of some Black women at companies followed an unpleasant trajectory, changing from excitement in the beginning, to the women being seen as a problem, to them being forced out for not being a culture fit. These biases can prevent Black employees from bringing their full selves to work.

“You don’t want to have to completely change the personality and dynamic to work at a company, especially when there’s nothing wrong with the dynamic,” Pagels-Minor said. “There’s nothing wrong with a person being passionate about the subject that they’re talking about. When, for instance, a white man does the same thing, we just go, ‘He’s passionate.’ But when a Black woman does, all of a sudden she’s crazy, or she’s a bully, or all these really crazy terms that make no sense.”

 

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Finding Supportive Networks Outside of Work

When Butler was working at a small startup in 2017, where there weren’t many Black employees, she saw the need to learn from other Black women in tech who could mentor her — not only on skills specific to her job, but also on how to navigate the challenges she was likely to face as a Black woman in the workplace. She created a Facebook group and called it Sista Circle, and the group had its inaugural brunch a few weeks later.

“As I observed these 25 Black women who did not know each other, I observed the magic,” Butler said. “By the end of the brunch, everybody’s best friends. Everybody’s different, but every time someone says, ‘This is what I’m dealing with at work,’ you have four people saying I’m either dealing with the same thing or I have dealt with the same thing.”

Today, the group has grown to 6,900 members. Butler said the relationships she developed at Sista Circle have been very helpful, providing both emotional support and practical advice.

“This organization was actually starting to compensate their employee resource group leaders.”

Dipper, the company that Mathis and Jenkins started, also provides users with support along with insights about prospective companies.

“There’s a large percentage [of users] that share the positives that are happening within organizations,” Jenkins said. “There’s one that I came across where this organization was actually starting to compensate their employee resource group leaders.... So not only are they giving each employee resource group a budget, but they’re also paying those leaders and making sure that it’s tied to their performance as well.”

The founders hope to use the information collected to give companies data-informed ideas on how to make their workplaces more inviting to employees of color. Users also can learn about which companies have microaggression policies, include anti-racism training in their onboarding processes, and offer a competitive salary.

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Good Compensation and Benefits Packages

Good compensation and benefits packages are especially important for Black employees, Pagels-Minor said.

“A lot of us, when we paid for college, we had to take out severe student loans,” they said. “Once we started working, we’re paying back those student loans, but we’re also supporting large numbers of family members. We’re literally responsible for a whole cohort of people.”

COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected Black, Latinx and indigenous populations. Pagels-Minor stressed the importance of having good medical benefits generally, and especially during the pandemic.

“Benefits are a huge deal,” Pagels-Minor said. “Having good benefits, it’s the difference between living and dying, because Black women are also not treated well when they go to medical facilities, and so it’s very important to have really great insurance and not have to question it.”

“It’s actually a privilege, in my opinion, to be able to work in a startup.”

Many of the events of this past year have hit the Black community especially hard, and employees would benefit from additional support.

“For Black folks, during the most recent Black Lives Matter movement, there probably needs to be more attention to mental-health care,” Pagels-Minor said. “There needs to be more attention to major moments and thinking about when Black employees might need to take a day off, or give employees more leeway.”

And because of the financial stressors they face, many Black tech workers aren’t able to work for the types of companies that are high risk and high reward.

“A good reason you don’t see that many Black people working in startups is because it’s risky,” Pagels-Minor said. “It’s actually a privilege, in my opinion, to be able to work in a startup, because you can forgo a huge part of your salary, and you can bet on the fact that it’s going to be a hit.”

 

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Black Entrepreneurs Aren’t Benefiting From Venture Capital

Even though Black women don’t have the same access to capital for entrepreneurship as other groups, they are founding companies anyway. Venture-backed Black entrepreneurs only account for 1 percent of total venture-backed founders, according to a 2018 diversity report by RateMyInvestor, but the total number of businesses owned by Black women grew 50 percent from 2014 to 2019, compared to 9 percent growth for businesses overall, according to a 2019 report by American Express.

After the latest Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd began, some investment companies began to take promising steps, such as the launch of a $100 million venture fund for startups led by founders of color by SoftBank, and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz’s $2.2 million Talent x Opportunity Fund and program. But Shelly Bell, founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures, a social enterprise company that helps raise capital for women entrepreneurs of color, said these moves are likely not enough to counteract long-standing trends.

“It’s tricky, because I don’t know that I see this changing the landscape for Black entrepreneurs, simply because, if the investors who are making these announcements only invest in people in the growth stage, you’re literally only talking about a handful of Black founders,” Bell said.

Funding for startups typically involves several rounds of venture capital funding, starting with the “seed” stage, which is usually reserved for companies who “have already validated their value proposition,” according to a post by consulting company Silicon Valley Software Group. For successful companies, the seed stage is followed by “early” and “growth” stages, which involve series A, B and C funding.

“Black people have only been able to amass wealth uninterrupted for about 60 years, if that.”

Companies that get to the seed stage have already passed through the “pre-seed” stage, when founders use their own savings or raise money from friends and family to get their projects off the ground. An Investopedia article on the stages of startup funding explains that the pre-seed stage “comes so early in the process that it is not generally included among the rounds of funding at all.”

SoftBank’s $100 million fund for founders of color targets the seed, early and growth stages, while Andreessen Horowitz’s Talent x Opportunity Fund and program mentions that it’s “planning a training program for pre-seed.”

“The reality is, if VCs are not going to be innovative enough to figure out a way to invest in pre-seed to seed, and then leading up to the growth stage, then no — these announcements are not going to move the needle at all,” Bell said about venture capital companies’ opportunity fund announcements. “Investors don’t want to lead a round, because that’s the most risky. A lot of the most well-known firms invest in the growth phase — series B and above.”

Bell said that, by focusing on the later stages, investors are weeding out the vast majority of Black entrepreneurs, who need the capital much earlier.

“Historically, Black people have only been able to amass wealth uninterrupted for about 60 years, if that,” Bell said. “I don’t even know if we can count 60 years, considering redlining and bank discrimination.... White people in America were able to own a home, get equity in those homes, and to use equity to launch a business. We have not had that opportunity for a long enough period of time for us to build any wealth.”

Because of the wealth disparity, many would-be Black founders cannot access enough capital by raising money through friends and family and by using personal funds during the pre-seed stage. Those Black enterprises would not survive long enough to reach the later stages that venture capital companies generally invest in.

 

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Helping Black Entrepreneurs Access Capital

Bell’s organization, Black Girl Ventures, was started in 2016 as a way to “create low-barrier access to capital.”

“We’re your friends and family round,” Bell said. Black Girl Ventures helps counteract the lack of pre-seed investors, because “there’s not as many as we need,” she said.

According to its website, the company was modeled after “rent parties” that Black tenants threw to socialize and raise money for rent during the Great Migration. Women founders of color are invited to present three-minute pitches to an audience, which then “votes with their dollars” through the company’s tech platform, SheRaise.

“We started traveling the country, going to different cities,” Bell said. “Everybody gets access to capital through the people donating. The top three winners may get extra prizes like more capital, extra capital, or different prizes or memberships from the sponsors.”

Black Girl Ventures have helped 13 cohorts of founders across seven cities, raising anywhere between $200 to $10,000 for each participant.

“Black employees are making their statements and they’re asserting themselves in the most positive ways. They are the real MVPs.”

In spite of all the challenges that Black entrepreneurs still face, Bell sees cause for optimism.

“Corporations have responded to Black Lives Matter in a way I’ve never seen them respond before,” she said.

Companies launched grant programs, created funds and donated to Black enterprises like Black Girl Ventures. Furthermore, all these things were happening quickly. Programs were vetting Black organizations for grants and approving those grants all within 24 hours, Bell said.

Donors to Black Girl Ventures not only gave one-time donations, but also expressed interest in working together in the long term. VCs started to become more open, as Black venture capitalists called for the end of the “warm intro,” the reliance of investors on being introduced to potential startups by a mutual acquaintance.

“The Black employees are making their statements and they’re asserting themselves in the most positive ways. They are the real MVPs,” Bell said. “The people who funded us, their employees were saying they wanted to get us funded, and that made a difference.”

Bell feels that the current momentum is going to continue and create a movement of positive change within tech. Companies have a large part to play, and the decisions they make in the coming months and years will have large consequences for equity in the industry.

“To me, the biggest issue is curiosity,” Pagels-Minor said. “People inside of companies need to be curious about Black folks.... Black people especially are often tastemakers — why would you not want to ensure that this group of individuals are really locked into being interested in your products and supporting your products?”

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