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Why Tech Degrees Are Not Putting More Blacks and Hispanics Into Tech Jobs
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Why Tech Degrees Are Not Putting More Blacks and Hispanics Into Tech Jobs

by adminNovember 17, 2014

Technology companies employ strikingly few black and Hispanic workers. They blame the recruitment pipeline, saying there aren’t enough of them graduating with relevant degrees and applying for tech jobs.

Yet the data show that there are many more black and Hispanic students majoring in computer science and engineering than work in tech jobs. So why aren’t they being hired?

Those who enter the candidate pipeline fall out somewhere along the way — and the culture and recruiting methods of tech companies seem to have a lot to do with it.

The pipeline problem is not a myth. Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in computer science and engineering programs, relative to their share of the population, while Asian students are overrepresented.

Yet the pipeline is more fruitful than tech companies make it out to be. Among young computer science and engineering graduates with bachelor’s or advanced degrees, 57 percent are white, 26 percent are Asian, 8 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are black, according to American Community Survey data. At the top 25 undergraduate programs, nearly 9 percent of graduates are underrepresented minorities, according to Education Department data analyzed by Maya A. Beasley, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut.

But technical workers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, according to the companies’ diversity reports, are on average 56 percent white, 37 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.

One issue is that black and Hispanic computer science and engineering graduates are less likely than white and Asian ones to go into tech jobs. Forty percent of young Asian graduates do so, compared with 16 percent of black graduates and 12 percent of Hispanics, according to American Community Survey data.

Meanwhile, 10 percent of black computer science and engineering graduates have office support jobs, which include administrative support and accounting jobs, compared with 5 percent of white graduates and 3 percent of Asians.

Ms. Beasley studied why talented black students ended up in lower-paying, lower-status careers for her book “Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite.” Those who studied science and technology were less likely than white students to stick with their majors when they felt they were underperforming, she found. Those who did stick with their majors were less likely to apply for technical jobs. They often pursued nonprofit or business work instead, she said, sometimes because they had heard negative things about the culture at tech companies, and seen how few black people worked there.

One example: At Facebook, where some employees had written “black lives matter” on the walls, others in recent days have crossed it out to write “all lives matter.” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, called the actions “malicious” and “deeply hurtful.”

“Any student of color looking at the numbers from the tech giants is going to be turned off and wary about taking a job there because it tells you something about what the climate is,” Ms. Beasley said. “They don’t want to be the token.”

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What Jobs Do Computer Science and Engineering Majors Have?

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Recruiting is another issue. Part of it is looking not just at Stanford and M.I.T. but also at places like historically black colleges. Even at the colleges that tech companies typically recruit from, students who are not white or Asian might not be in the networks to know about opportunities at tech companies.

Tristan Walker, a tech start-up founder and chief executive of Walker & Company, said he didn’t know about Silicon Valley until he was 24 and arrived at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“There definitely isn’t a pipeline problem, even going to the same schools companies go to,” Mr. Walker said. He puts the onus on the companies. “These folks aren’t working hard enough, they’re just not.”

Tech companies need to look into more places to find students outside the mainstream network, said Mr. Walker and Laura Weidman Powers, who together started Code 2040, a nonprofit that connects black and Hispanic engineering students with tech companies. (By the year 2040, some people predict, minorities will become the majority in the United States, and the group says its goal is that they are proportionally represented in the tech sector by then.)

When companies come to campus to recruit, for example, black and Hispanic students often simply don’t show up for information sessions, Ms. Powers said. But they’re more likely to come to workshops, like for writing résumés or preparing for interviews.

“That gets a higher yield in terms of students showing up, and they leave with an impression that we value them and their growth, as opposed to it just being a sales pitch,” she said.

Tech companies often give coders whiteboard interviews — asking them to solve a problem by writing code on a whiteboard, so the interviewers can see their thought process. At Code 2040, however, they discovered that many black and Hispanic students, unlike white and Asian ones, had never heard of this type of interview and were unprepared for it.

“There’s still a dominant cultural narrative in black and Hispanic communities that you have to be twice as good and keep your head down and work hard,” Ms. Powers said. “That does not translate to Valley culture, starting with the whiteboard interview,” because it requires people to work through errors in front of the interviewer, as opposed to presenting only the right answer.

Research has found that during hiring, managers are biased against black-sounding names on résumés, for instance, and interviewers weigh too heavily whether they’d want to hang out with someone. Software can help remove human bias, such as with new tools for stripping résumés of biographical information, offering blind auditions to job applicants or analyzing job postings for language that excludes certain groups.

Many tech companies have started doing things like requiring training on unconscious bias and hiring corporate diversity chiefs. But it is unclear how much of a difference these efforts make. Holding hiring managers responsible for diversity works far better than either staff diversity training sessions, which don’t work well, or networking and mentoring programs, which help a bit, according to a study analyzing three decades of work force data from 708 companies.

Some researchers offer other strategies: Use standardized interview questions, not subjective ones; evaluate hiring managers based on whether they bring in diverse candidates; build a Rolodex of potential hires by working with networking groups for minorities; hire more than one minority member in each batch of new hires, so they have a support network.

Techniques like these could expand the pipeline for tech companies — and for any other industry, too.

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