Aniyia Williams, founder and CEO of Tinsel, right, talks about program placement with Kara Lee, at the offices of Galvanize in San Francisco. Williams says she has made sure to hire women and underrepresented minorities. Eric Risberg/AP

Race, not gender, is the larger obstacle in limiting minority women from taking managing and executive positions in the tech industry.

The recent complaints that the lack of gender diversity in the tech industry is much ado about nothing are off the mark, and in more ways than one. The disadvantages of women in this sector are well documented, and no amount of foaming about free speech can obscure that. However, racial diversity in the tech workforce is a far more prevalent issue, especially in Silicon Valley, according to a new report from the Ascend Foundation, a business organization that represents Asian Americans.

Analyzing data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the San Francisco Bay area, the Ascend report found that in 2015 the racial gap in tech leadership positions between white men and minority men was larger than the gender gap between white men and white women.

White women were 31 percent more likely than Hispanic men to be executives, and 88 percent and 97 percent  more likely than Asian and Black men respectively. Meanwhile, for minority women, the “race-to-gender factor” has only worsened since 2007. Reads the report: “In general, although minority women faced both racial and gender gaps … race, not gender, was increasingly the more important factor in limiting minority women in the pipeline.”  

(Ascend Foundation)

The analysis also takes a closer look at disparities in promotion and high-level positions. On that front, it is Asian Americans who were least likely of all races to become managers or executives in the tech sector despite having more work professionals in the tech field than all other races.

This wouldn’t be apparent from looking at the racial demographics, which shows Asian Americans increasing their share of Silicon Valley tech executives from 20.2 percent in 2007 to 25.2 percent in 2015. The white share of tech executives dropped from 74.2 percent in 2007 to 68.8 percent during the same time period while black and Hispanic shares held steady—though both well below 5 percent. The Asian-American executives’ numbers are low, however, when compared with Asians’ share of the general workforce, which was 47.3 percent in 2015.  

(Ascend Foundation)

Factoring that in, the report finds that the gap between Asian executives and Asian professionals has ranged from -27 percent to -22 percent between 2007 and 2015. By comparison, the gap between white tech professionals and executives has ranged from +27 to +25 percent during the same interval. Whites are the only race with that kind of positive gap, which means that they are being promoted to senior leadership roles in tech companies at far higher rates than all other races.

To gain an accurate picture of representation in this field, the Ascend researchers developed two measurements, the executive parity index (EPI) and the manager parity index (MPI). In each case, the percentage of executives and managers is divided by the number of professionals in general as determined by race and gender.

Using those index scales, the report reveals that white women saw the greatest improvement of any demographic—including white men—in climbing the tech sector ladder to manager and executive positions. At the executive level, white women jumped from being represented at 12 percent below parity 10 years ago to reaching 17 percent above parity in 2015.

(Ascend Foundation)

White women were also already well represented at the management level, at 27 percent above parity in 2007. But that index score rose to 45 percent above parity in 2015, a sharper increase than found for any other racial group, including white men. That year, white women were 91 percent more likely than African-American women, 178 percent more likely than Hispanic women, and 246 percent more likely than Asians to be executives.

African Americans actually made significant progress in executive parity between 2007 and 2015, and African American women in particular. But that measure is somewhat deceiving. That “progress” was actually a result of black professionals leaving the profession rather than the addition of new executives. There was a 13 percent decline in African-American women professionals working in tech since 2007—the only racial group among men or women to lose representation in the general tech workforce. The number of black women who are managers in Silicon Valley companies also dropped 23 percent in that time period.

There have been some high-profile hires in recent years of black women at some of the top companies in the tech market, such as Bozoma Saint John, who came to Uber from an executive position at Apple. But to really put a dent in this problem, the Ascend Foundation recommended that tech companies would have to stop investing in vague and broadly-defined “diversity” goals and start actively targeting black and Latino women for recruitment and promotion, with “special emphasis … given to retaining black women.”

Or put more succinctly, as the popular motto goes, these companies need to simply trust black women.

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