BigTech faces up to a big racial diversity problem

The recent wave of protest sparked by the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis has raised the issue of racism for corporations across sectors and geographies – and none more so than the tech industry.

As young and cool as many big technology companies portray themselves, the majority are still overwhelmingly white, particularly in leadership and technical positions. This lack of diversity is increasingly being called out, so what can these supposedly progressive brands do to change on a practical level?

This article will look at some of the public statements made following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign since the end of May, along with some possible solutions to the problem.

Scale of the issue

Blind, an anonymous professional network, with 3.6 million users working primarily in tech, asked its platform about race representation at the start of June.

From more than 2,800 responses, it found that 76 per cent of white respondents said their ethnicity is represented in the upper management and c-suite level of their organisation – while only 10 per cent of black or African American respondents were represented.

Breaking the results down by company, 44 per cent of Amazon professionals said their ethnicity was not represented in the upper management. Only 17 per cent of Amazon professionals said their personal values were represented in the upper management, while 49 per cent of Facebook and Google professionals said their personal values were not represented in the upper management.

Finally, 47 per cent of white respondents said upper management at their organisation demonstrated an understanding of racial differences, compared to 34 per cent of Latino respondents and 19 per cent of black or African American respondents.

In 2014, Silicon Valley companies began disclosing their workforce demographics. The most recent figures from last year showed that at Google and Microsoft, the share of US technical employees who were black or Latino rose by less than a percentage point since 2014.

The share of black technical workers at Apple was unchanged at six per cent, for instance; less than the roughly 13 per cent of US population share made up of black people.

BigTech response

In the days following Floyd’s death on 25 May, most tech company bosses made some kind of statement in response, ranging from pledges of money to relevant charities to stopping their more controversial software programmes.

The latter came in a letter from IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna to the US Congress outlining the company’s policy proposals to advance racial equality, focusing on police reform, responsible use of technology and broadening educational opportunities.

He explained that IBM would no longer offer general purpose facial recognition or analysis software, adding that the company "firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and principles of trust and transparency".

He suggested that now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by law enforcement agencies.

"Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe," Krishna wrote. "But vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularity when used in law enforcement, and that such bias testing is audited and reported."

IBM also suggested that national policy in response to the protest over unlawful killing of black citizens should encourage and advance uses of technology that bring greater transparency and accountability to policing, such as body cameras and modern data analytics techniques.

Sticking with the use of such technology by law enforcement, in response to a tweet from Amazon condemning the police violence, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked: “will you commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse?”

This was a reference to Amazon’s facial recognition software Rekognition, which was unveiled in 2016 and then sold to several police forces and government agencies.

A few days later, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on police use of the artificial intelligence-powered software, stating: “We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge.

“We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

An experiment run by the ACLU in 2018 showed that Rekognition incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress to photos of people arrested for a crime – overwhelmingly misidentifying Congress members who were not white.

Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties director with the ACLU in northern California, commented: “Amazon must fully commit to a blanket moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition until the dangers can be fully addressed, and it must press Congress and legislatures across the country to do the same – they should also commit to stop selling surveillance systems like Ring that fuel the over-policing of communities of colour.”

The Washington county sheriff’s office in Oregon - the first law enforcement agency in the country to contract with Amazon to use the technology - also confirmed it would suspend its use of the product in light of the announcement.

On 3 June, Amazon released a statement pledging a total of $10 million to organisations selected with the help of Amazon's Black Employee Network (BEN), focused on combating systemic racism through the legal system, as well as those dedicated to expanding educational and economic opportunity for black communities.

"Amazon’s leadership and BEN have worked hand-in-hand to identify organizations in the black community that make a difference and will contribute to them in a meaningful way,” said Angelina Howard, president of BEN. "We will continue these conversations about how Amazon can support employees and the entire black community beyond these tragic recent events."

Even chief executive Jeff Bezos weighed in, posting on Instagram an email from a customer angry about the company’s stance. He explained that “Black Lives Matter doesn't mean other lives don't matter” and added: “Black lives matter speaks to racism and the disproportionate risk that black people face in our law enforcement and justice system”.

The other most public face of BigTech, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg followed the commitment of $10 million to groups working on racial justice, with a note to employees responding to the social network’s lack of action - compared to Twitter’s new fact-checking moves - on president Donald Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” statement.

“As we continue to process this difficult moment, I want to acknowledge the real pain expressed by members of our community,” he wrote. “I also want to acknowledge that the decision I made last week has left many of you angry, disappointed and hurt.

“Many of you have asked what concrete steps we can start working on to improve our products and policies – based on feedback from employees, civil rights experts and subject matter experts internally, we're exploring the following areas, which fit into three categories: ideas related to specific policies, ideas related to decision-making, and proactive initiatives to advance racial justice and voter engagement.”

Zuckerberg added: “I know many of you think we should have labelled the president's posts in some way last week – our current policy is that if content is actually inciting violence, then the right mitigation is to take that content down - not let people continue seeing it behind a flag.”

He concluded by promising a review into whether structural changes are required to make sure “the right groups and voices are at the table” when decisions affecting a certain group are being made.

“I'm committed to elevating the representation of diversity, inclusion and human rights in our processes and management team discussions, and I will follow up soon with specific thoughts on how we can structurally improve this.”

Snap chief executive Evan Spiegel stated, in a note to employees on 31 May, that “we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform”.

While he clarified that Snapchat may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account, as long as the content is consistent with community guidelines, the social network will not promote that account or content in any way.

Spiegel said he will consider donations to help relevant causes, but noted that “philanthropy is simply unable to make more than a dent in the grave injustices we face” and “cannot cross the deep and wide chasm of injustice”.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google and Alphabet, emailed employees on 3 June, stating that he had met with a group of the company’s black leaders to talk about the future.

In the meantime, he pledged $12 million in funding to organisations working to address racial inequities and $25 million in Ad Grants to help organisations fighting racial injustice provide critical information, building on the $32 million donated to racial justice over the past five years.

“Supporting worthy organisations is a step in the right direction, but it is not a replacement for doing the harder work ahead both within and outside of Google,” he stated. “The events of the past few weeks reflect deep structural challenges – we’ll work closely with our black community to develop initiatives and product ideas that support long-term solutions.”

On 28 May, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella gave employees assurances that the company will continue to advocate to have a range of voices heard and respected.

“That's why we're doing what we're doing with the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, investing in partnerships and programs, working to drive reforms, focusing on policing,” she added.

Unfortunately, the following week Microsoft’s decision to replace human journalists with robots on its frontpage backfired, with the artificial intelligence software illustrating a news story about racism with a photo of the wrong mixed-race member of the band Little Mix.

However, Microsoft did join Amazon in stating that it will not sell its facial recognition technology to police departments until there is a federal law regulating it.

The Washington Post reported that the company plans to put in place “review factors” that president Brad Smith said would “go even beyond what we already have” to determine the use of the technology beyond law enforcement.

“The bottom line for us is to protect the human rights of people as this technology is deployed,” he added.

Tim Cook, Apple’s often outspoken chief executive, stated that the company’s mission is to create technology that empowers people to change the world for the better.

“We’ve always drawn strength from diversity, welcomed people from every walk of life to our stores around the world, and strived to build an Apple that is inclusive of everyone.”

But echoing the general sentiment of most messages, he added “we must do more”, committing Apple to bringing critical resources and technology to underserved school systems; pushing internal progress on inclusion and diversity; and donating to organisations including the Equal Justice Initiative, which challenges racial injustice and mass incarceration.

PayPal has committed $530 million to support black and minority-owned businesses and fight economic inequality.

Chief executive Dan Schulman explained: “We've listened to leaders in the black community about the challenges facing black business owners and the support and investments needed to sustain black-owned businesses and create long-term economic opportunity.”

The majority of the investment - $500 million - will back an economic opportunity fund to support underrepresented minority businesses and communities over the long term.
Another $10 million will go to empowerment grants to black-owned businesses impacted by COVID-19 or civil unrest, with $5 million funding grants and employee matching for non-profit partners working with black business owners, and the final $15 million is being put behind efforts to improve internal diversity and inclusion programmes.

Finally, Intel chief executive Bob Swan sent a memo to employees on 31 May, noting that the company’s 2030 corporate responsibility strategy includes a focus on diversity and inclusion.

“At a time when some companies are disinvesting in diversity and inclusion, we are investing more because it matters,” he promised, backing it up with $1 million in support of efforts to address social injustice and anti-racism across various non-profits and community organisations.

Possible solutions

In the US, the Information Technology Industry Council’s president and chief executive Jason Oxman stated that solutions must be found to the endemic racism and persistent discrimination at the root of these latest tragic incidents.

“Our industry makes technology that inspires and empowers people to do better, to have a voice, and to enact change – our strength lies in our ability to innovate in ways that benefit everyone and draw from the communities we live in.

“We all need to do more and do better to address pervasive inequality and discrimination, and we have the opportunity to do our part,” Oxman continued, adding: “Our industry is committed to listening to communities across the globe, to our employees, and to our customers, and to take action that brings about real change.”

In the UK, data compiled by the Evening Standard in November revealed that only three per cent of the technology industry’s employees in London are black, prompting calls for action on diversity in the sector.

Tottenham MP David Lammy demanded that tech company bosses and the government to do more to help black workers enter the industry – as black people make up 13 per cent of the population in London. “The under-representation of black workers in UK tech is deeply disappointing,” he stated at the time. “Big tech corporations and startups must do more to find talent from all backgrounds.”

Mark Martin, the founder of industry organisation UK Black Tech, explained that it’s not the fact the talent doesn’t exist, it’s the lack of access and opportunities that restrict black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people from entering the tech profession.

“There is a perception that BAME people are not technical enough, so they are persuaded to pursue non-technical roles or careers – in order to create better outcomes we need to break down some of the tech silos and make the opportunities aware to a wider demographic of people.”

He suggested that tech firms should try every effort to encourage anti-racist systems and structures that promote fairness in promotion, pay and workload – adding that the UK should follow Silicon Valley in releasing figures on these measures annually.

“Racism has been professionalised in the UK to the point we are polite with it,” commented Martin. “In order to root out racism we have to ask ourselves some serious questions – why need leaders to actively challenge any racist behaviours, attitudes or habits that occur in everyday activities.”

The country’s largest tech industry membership organisation, techUK, has similar figures for BAME representation in the sector, at around five per cent, but deputy chief executive Antony Walker told FStech that the data is far from comprehensive – partly because organisations are reticent to collect it and partly because people themselves don’t always like declaring their ethnicity.

He suggested that the two main problems are to do with the roots into tech and then the experiences of those within the sector.

“In terms of the roots in, we know that about two thirds to three quarters working in tech are educated to degree level, so clearly it’s driven by education and who gets to that stage,” said Walker. “There’s more that can be done to tackle that – outreach to schools, access to work placements and internships, high-profile role models.”

He encouraged tech firms to make sure that when they do school and university outreach, they cast the net wider, as well as giving more routes in without degree-level education. “We’re seeing companies starting to make short modular courses available to let people train into tech, which is also good for tackling the growing skills gap.”

Walker also pointed out that companies must make sure hiring practices are up to date, by addressing forms of unconscious bias. “This is the bit where there’s more learning and listening to do – understanding what’s been helpful for BAME people, but also the barriers they’ve met,” he added.

Ashleigh Ainsley, the co-founder of industry group Colorintech, questioned the pathway design for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students, as its own research found that many don't end up in relevant roles in the year after graduating.

Noting the specific lack of diversity in technical roles, he pointed out that the type of roles where people are looking for specialisation require specific skills which few people in the pipeline had opportunities to hone.

"If you are looking for a senior engineer with 10 years of programming experience, they would have needed to be at it back in 2010 when the industry was much smaller and far more reliant on referral networks and recruiting in likeness and image then it is now - essentially those who were pioneers in tech were, for many systemic reasons, likely to be straight white men, who created pathways for people like them to get into these positions."

Ainsley also called for a fundamental reassessment of key performance indicators (KPIs), arguing that it's hard to change what doesn't get measured. "If recruitment teams and the business at the whole are measured and tracked on diversity metrics and inclusion parameters you start to drive culture towards particular factors which are likely to introduce change."

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