Diversity Data Shows Need to Focus on Women of Color

by Alexis Martin

The floodgates holding back the tech industry’s dismal diversity data are now wide open. First Google, then LinkedIn and Yahoo, and now Facebook have soaked Silicon Valley watchers with what many of us already assumed: the tech community is mostly white and male. The statistics about racial and gender diversity in the technology field are disheartening and signal the need for efforts to increase the presence of women and African American, Latino, and Native American professionals in computing and technology fields.

There is currently a fair amount of dialogue and momentum, focused on increasing numbers of women and underrepresented people of color in the tech industries — as there is a great need for it. The nation is recognizing the benefits of engaging and preparing diverse groups in the rapidly-growing tech industry in order to keep pace with economic demands. Yet in these data releases and subsequent conversations, one critical demographic group has been consistently overlooked: women of color.

When data are broken down by both race and gender, significantly lower rates of participation in computer science (CS) occur for African American and Latina females than their White female or Black/Latino male counterparts. Data from the National Science Foundation (2012) indicate that:

· African American and Latina women combined earn just 5% of all CS degrees; Women overall earn 18% of all CS degrees;

· Among all women earning CS degrees (n=8,730), just 17% were African American and 9% were Latina;

· 70% of all Black CS degree earners are male and 81% of Latino CS degree earners are male.

· Within the technology workforce, 25% of CS professionals are female, while just 4% of these professionals are African American (3%) or Latina (1%).

In the field of technology, women of color face barriers and obstacles related to both race and gender, a so-called “double-bind.” These barriers can include racial/gender discrimination, lack of access to resources and facilities, questions about skill due to one’s gender/race, isolation, endorsement of negative stereotypes about one’s own background, and a lack of diverse mentors, peers, and role models. Unlike men of color and white women, women of color experience a combination of two marginalized and negatively stereotyped identities.

Efforts targeting women or initiatives focused solely on underrepresented racial groups may overlook important differences in experiences and identities at the intersection of race and gender. For example, women from different socioeconomic, racial, regional, and educational backgrounds may have very different experiences from each other and a one-size-fits-all approach for engaging women will not necessarily address these nuanced experiences.

While not widespread, we can look to various efforts to diversify the tech industry for women of color as particularly promising practices to address the “double-bind” of contending with both racial and gender barriers. The Level Playing Field Institute’s (LPFI) SMASH program, for instance, works to empower and prepare young women of color to enter and succeed in STEM fields through rigorous STEM coursework and exposure to mentors and role models. Additionally, organizations like Black Girls Code, which exposes young African-American women to computer science, and CompuGirls, a culturally relevant computing program for young women of color, serve as powerful examples of programs to stimulate interest in an industry in desperate need of a change.

Without question, we applaud all of the tech companies that have come forward with their workplace diversity data. It is a key first step forward in larger industry-wide efforts to address racial and gender disparities in the tech industry. But it is only a first step. To improve diversity and representation within these tech companies specifically, and within the tech industry in general, this flood of data must be further examined and disaggregated by both race and gender, paying particular attention to the intersection of race and gender. In addition, investments and strategies to improve preparation and participation in computer science must incorporate a clear focus on the unique challenges faced by women of color in technology. We must not allow this important demographic and its talents to sink to the bottom of the conversation.

Note: This op-ed appeared on Huffington Post, July 9, 2014. Accessible at: http://huff.to/1mgSddE