Black women in tech

Why Black Women Should Own Their Impact in Tech

WE Communications Blog: Technology

11/29/2018
— Tamara Braunstein 

By any measure, the technology industry has a persistent diversity problem.

A simple internet query of “How many women work in tech?” paints a grim picture. Most studies indicate that despite representing more than half of all U.S. workers, women represent less than a quarter of the tech workforce here.

When it comes to minority women in particular, the statistics are even more painful: Last year, less than 10 percent of the computing workforce was made up of women who identified as African-American (3 percent), Hispanic (1 percent), or Asian (5 percent), according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

So it felt a bit ironic when attendees at last month’s inaugural Black Women in Technology Northwest Summit (BWIT) repeatedly remarked, “There are so many of us!”

Clearly, by the numbers, there just aren’t “so many” black women in tech. Yet, the BWIT refrain exposes a very real symptom of those numbers: Minority women who do work in tech are largely operating within silos. We are tokens within typically white-male-dominated teams, isolated from our peer community.

To gather with the primary purpose of connecting and supporting each other, of learning and reflecting together, feels exponential. It feels empowering. It feels necessary.

What Would Chad Do?

Even as major tech industry events struggle to attract and promote diverse lineups, there remains a tangible need for a venue designed specifically for this unicorn workforce. Not only is there value in the camaraderie, but the resulting dialogue is necessary to help us determine where we fit individually and together within today’s climate of intentional diversity.

Often, such discussions are broached within the context of digital transformation and social representation.

“Diversity fosters innovation,” says Anu Mahanty, senior director of Product & Technology at T-Mobile. “No two people use an app the same way.”

In other words, companies need diverse people to build diverse products. The impact on the business and the connection to purpose are intertwined.

Strategically, the idea has saturated the industry. Yet, industry-leading companies continue to make headlines for their struggle to actually find and nurture the talent they need to move from platitudes to progress.

One possible solution based on conversations among BWIT attendees: Learn from — and mimic — how white people collectively advance in the workplace. Or, as participants of one session put it, when it comes to career advancement opportunities, black women should ask themselves, “What would Chad do?”

“If a woman meets three out of five requirements for a job, she won’t go for it,” says Nick Peddy, vice president of Software Engineering at Capital One. “If Chad meets one out of 10, he thinks he can conquer the world.”

As the lone representative of “the Chads” — the name used by the panel to refer to stereotypical white male candidates — Peddy gave the example to illustrate how women, and black women in particular, tend to remove themselves from job opportunities before anyone else can.

That’s partly because, with so few black women in tech, it’s difficult for potential recruits to picture themselves in such roles. Indeed, many BWIT panelists and attendees were quick to acknowledge their careers began in nontech industries and “faux-tech” roles. As students, teachers, marketers and entrepreneurs, few imagined themselves entering the tech world on purpose.

Yet, these same “accidental techies” eagerly credit their networks for helping them reach their current position. They recognize that their journey into tech was more about appreciating an alignment of their skills and passions than it was about determining to enter this specific industry.

Networking for Accidental Techies

The advice, then, is about going after opportunities and helping our people along the way. Because as it turns out, the pipeline to bring black women into tech is broader than we might think. That’s where networking comes into play. Organizations like BWIT are critical for bringing us out of our silos to establish our presence. Through networking, we’re empowered to own our progress and take risks to hold our organizations accountable for their claims of diversity and inclusion.

So, when facing a tech career opportunity, we should consider what Chad would do: We should be confident, connect with people who may be able to give us an inside edge and go for it.

Of course, how much of the onus for progress should be placed on an already underrepresented and overtaxed group is an ongoing debate all its own, and it’s a debate we should continue to have.

“Taking risks to change beliefs is important,” says Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO and president of DreamBox Learning. “Especially when working with people who want to accommodate diversity but don’t have the same belief that it’s absolutely critical.”

Representation matters, and determining who is best placed — or most responsible — for building that representation in the workplace is no simple task. At WE, that conversation comes inherently with our leadership’s belief in its responsibility to cultivate a sense of belonging for all employees.

Still, there is a truth underlying the sentiment that when we help ourselves, we’re in a better position to help each other. The rallying cry to “Lift as we rise” can benefit more than just those who look like us — by embracing our position and owning our role in tech, we can help transform our organizations and society for the better.