Is Silicon Valley Failing Minorities?

According to USA Today, America’s top universities turn out African American and Hispanic American computer scientists and engineers at twice the rate that technology companies actually employ them.

This alarming statistic was the subject of a recent study by USA Today journalist Paul Overberg, who looked into the largest software companies hiring procedures, as well as their responses to the study – and found that both were severely lacking.

The article made use of the 2013 Taulbee Survey report, which surveys 179 U.S. and Canadian Universities that offer computer-based doctorates.

Apparently, the standard defence of the major firms is that they simply do not see enough applicants in order to create a more diverse workplace. However, according to USA Today’s research, these claims do not hold up at all when faced with the sheer number of black and Hispanic graduates entering the job markets (with particular emphasis on Silicon Valley companies) every year.

In Silicon Valley, the vast, vast majority of computer programmers, scientists, engineers and other workers are either white or Asian. Of course, not all Silicon Valley companies release staffing data, but of those that do, just 2% of workers are black, whilst only 3% were found to be Hispanic. This paints a particularly grim picture of the larger US software companies’ hiring policies, especially when one considers that, of last year’s prestigious research university graduates in computer science or computer engineering, 4.5% were African American and 6.5% were Hispanic. That’s a lot of highly qualified individuals entering the job market.

As Overberg points out, it does not seem possible that most of these applicants are unsuited for the positions on offer.

“As technology becomes a major engine of economic growth in the U.S. economy, tech companies are under growing pressure to diversify their workforces, which are predominantly white, Asian and male. Leaving African Americans and Hispanics out of that growth increases the divide between haves and have-nots. And the technology industry risks losing touch with the diverse nation — and world — that forms its customer base”, writes Overberg.

Effectively, only half of all black and Hispanic computer science graduates (specifically those emerging from top universities), are being hired by the country’s major technology companies right now. This means that a massive 50% of highly skilled minority workers are being forced to look elsewhere for work, despite graduating from the top universities, and with excellent grades.

These findings include computer firms like Apple and Internet giants such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and eBay.

To better put all these statistics into perspective, black people are considered to constitute 12% of the U.S. workforce, whilst Hispanics are thought to represent around 16%. In Silicon Valley, however, those numbers decline sharply.

The tech companies involved rushed to criticize the American education system, suggesting that people of the ethnic backgrounds mentioned were being failed by it, but the USA Today article hints at a far more plausible reason, as provided by Janice Cuny, director of the Computer Education Program at the National Science Foundation,

“People used to say that there were no women in major orchestras because women didn’t like classical music. Then in the 1970s they changed the way people auditioned so it was blind, the listeners couldn’t see the players auditioning. Now the numbers are much more representative (…) the same thing happens in the tech world. There are these subtle biases that make you think that some person is not what you’re looking for, even when they are.”

Could it be little more than an old-fashioned bias in the minds of the interviewers? Well, yes and no. Another of the great problems facing minority graduates in the US, as well as graduates of all races around the world, is that many of the leading employers recruit graduates mainly (or almost entirely) from a very small, very select group of leading universities.

These educational institutions make it harder for new graduates to find the best jobs, simply because the biggest companies are always looking to those select universities, first and foremost. It also means that no matter how good the reputations, grade averages or graduates of other institutions may be; their students will still be graduating with a major career handicap.

Justin Edmond, a top African American software designer who works at Pinterest, labeled the above as the biggest problem, saying, “There’s a lot of things that can be done to fix the problem, but a lot of them are things that Silicon Valley and technology companies don’t do (…) If you go to the same prestigious universities every single time and every single year to recruit people … then you are going to get the same people over and over again.”

In addition, all of this data now stands alongside the established fact that men vastly outnumber women within the tech sector. In fact, Microsoft’s engineering and tech departments are just 17% female, as are Google’s, while Apple’s are only slightly higher at 20%.

Silicon Valley is a hot bed of innovation and technological advancement, creating products and inventions that will have major impacts on the world over next few decades (at least). It is of vital importance, then, that these companies represent a broad cross-section of the world that they are attempting to serve.

Hopefully, the companies in question will start to take note of studies like this one and begin to take steps toward improving the situation.