Tech firms grapple with diversity after George Floyd protests

Some large semiconductor makers have fewer than 2% African-Americans on their staffs, and the proportion of Black engineers is even smaller. (Getty Images)

Global protests after the death of George Floyd have once again raised questions of ways to improve racial justice for African-Americans, including through greater diversity in tech workplaces.

The nation’s electronics and computing companies are overwhelmingly staffed by white engineers, as are the ranks of top executives and boards.  Many tech companies have responded directly to the recent protests with a commitment to improve racial diversity but the disparity gap is immense and will be hard to fill.

Some tech companies have fewer than 2% Black workers, while African-Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population. Chip giant Nvidia told FierceElectronics that it has 80 workers who identify themselves as Black, making up 1% of its U.S. workforce. Reporting about diversity by individual tech companies can be spotty or non-existent, prompting one academic researcher to suggest the numbers of Black engineers could be very small if accurately reported.

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Black worker representation that matches the population “is a reasonable goal when we talk about diversity,” said Sharla Alegria, a sociology professor at University of Toronto, in comment to FierceElectronics. “However, obstacles to achieving that level of representation are not just about recruitment and retention on the part of tech companies. There is a complex system of racial inequalities that leaves Black students less likely to have the education and skills for tech jobs, so reaching diversity goals requires collaboration across different institutions that prepare, train, recruit, hire and hopefully retain workers.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission last reported in 2018 that 3.5% of engineers and other professionals in computer and electronics manufacturing in private industry were Black workers.  About 61% of that job category of about 450,000 workers were white, according to a FierceElectronics analysis. 

Among executives in that tech sector, just 1.7% were Black men and women, while 77% were white men and women, the EEOC reported that year.

eeoc race plot

Diversity at six semiconductor giants

FierceElectronics researched six of the largest chipmakers for the proportion of Blacks in their workforces, including Nvidia.   

Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker by revenues, fared better than the EEOC average in 2019, reporting on its web site that its technical/engineering workforce was 4.8% Black, while 61% were white or Asian males. (Intel doesn’t tally white women in that group.) The percentage of Black executives at Intel was 2.3%.

Intel boasted its diverse employee base has grown in recent years, which is borne out in its numbers.  In 2015, just 3.3% of its technical/engineering work force was Black, compared to 4.8% four years later. 

The company recently appointed a white male to its board, former HP CEO Dion Weisler. He championed diversity at HP, an approach that Intel said it embraces.  Intel Chairman Omar Ishrak said the company has worked to increase the board’s diversity with the election in 2018 of Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. But he added, “we are not satisfied” and said the board will work to increase its racial and ethnic diversity.

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Micron Technology reported in 2019 on its web site that 3.3% of its technical/engineering workers were Black, while Qualcomm reported online last year that 1.3% of its technical work force was Black, while not specifying the number in technical jobs.Texas Instruments and Broadcom both have statements supporting a commitment to diversity on their web sites, but do not appear to have posted percentages of minority representation and did not respond to a request to comment.

Would more Black engineers reduce bias in AI and other products?

Nvidia is well know for its work in AI chips and technology used in industrial robots and other applications and clearly recognizes the need to exclude racial and other bias in its products.   In a statement to FierceElectronics, the company said: “We’re always striving to create better datasets and algorithms to overcome any bias in current models. We are also doing more research on algorithmic bias in deep-learning models and methods to mitigate them.”

Would hiring more Black engineers and chip designers make a difference in the level of bias that shows up in AI products? Maybe or maybe not. There’s a widely-held assumption that hiring more Blacks and other minorities will necessarily improve a company and its products or even advance the lives of those within an overall minority group.

“Things are never as simple as adding Black workers,” said Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor who heads the Center for Employment Equity at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and has written about minority representation in high tech.

“These workers must be integrated into workgroups, empowered to raise issues of racial bias when apparent to them and protected when co-workers or managers are resistant to racial claims.  Isolated engineers are unlikely to have such support and unlikely to be empowered to point out bias in product design or practices,” he said in an interview.

While there is a lot of talk about rooting out bias in computer science and law, Tomaskovic-Devey said he’s not seen a formal academic study on the matter in the social sciences or management fields. 

Making change beyond symbolic gestures

Some tech companies are emerging as showing an understanding of diversity issues and making solid commitments to improve.  Tomaskovic-Devey pointed to Airbnb’s statement in mid-June to make the company more diverse. 

Airbnb committed to increasing to 20% the number of people of color on its board and executive team by the end of 2021 and set out a plan to determine recruitment goals to be met by the end off 2025.  Tomaskovic-Devey noted that Airbnb started its diversity steps months ago, well before Floyd died in police custody on May 25.  

The professor has also studied Pymetrics, which offers “ethical AI” used in talent management and acquisition of employees. “What they are doing is really smart,” he said. “They recognize that the AI approach to screening resumes and job apps reflects biases beforehand. They have pretty good data showing bias and how it can be trained out of an AI system.”

Blendoor, another company that uses analytics for managing a diverse workforce, has created a BlendScore that ranks companies on diversity and inclusion. Their ranking places Intuit, Google and HP in the top 3 spots.  Google has its own extensive diversity report that has Black workers at 3.7% of their workforce in 2020 with 2.6% in leadership spots.

“If Google is among the best, that doesn’t bode very well for others,” said Prof. Alegria.  Because Google doesn’t specify what roles those Black workers are in,  “it is possible that even at one of the companies with the best scores for diversity, the number of Black workers in technical positions is vanishingly small,” she said.

Alegria believes greater workforce diversity can help tech companies make better products.  “Companies make the case themselves that consumers are diverse, so if we want to make products that appeal to consumers, we need that diversity represented among designers, engineers and other team members making those products,” she said.

Recent history of the diversity push

While recent protests have ignited concerns about Black diversity in tech, the issue is hardly a new one.  Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson has been pushing for diversity in tech at least since 2015, calling for specific diversity goals and timetables at companies. 

In 2017, Harvard Business Review authors wrote a study that found hiring discrimination against Black Americans hadn’t declined in the previous 25 years. They found that hiring discrimination was NOT influenced by a job applicant’s education, gender, local labor market conditions and other factors. “Our results suggest that levels of discrimination against black job applications hasn’t changed since 1990,” the authors said.

In 2014, the EEOC issued its own diversity in high tech special report that found Black workers had a smaller share of tech jobs when compared to overall private industry.  At that time, Silicon Valley tech firms had fewer than 1% Black workers in all job positions.

Despite this dubious history, Tomaskovic-Dewey sees some hope for the current era based on how protests in the 1960s improved Black hiring, at least for a time.  “In the 1960s and 1970s, the hundred largest companies hired black men and women and then the trend went flat and there was no relative change after the ‘80s," he noted. 

"The result of that political push in that era can kind of lead to hope about our current era," he said. "This puts more pressure on corporations and government.  I’m a little bit hopeful right now when I see technologies like Pymetrics and public commitments with teeth. Many of the diversity statements we see are probably symbolic, however.  Hitting goals is about transparency and accountability.”

There’s also a view that better STEM programs in colleges will help increase the potential pool of Black candidates to prompt more hiring.  “Many tech companies are actually caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. “Most want to increase diversity, but it’s harder to find qualified candidates. “

“Women and people of color are still underrepresented,” Gold added. “What’s needed is to help the next generation of workers by getting more STEM education and making it more attractive for women and minorities to get into tech.  But that’s a 10- to 20-year effort and doesn’t solve today’s diversity problem. That’s not to say there’s not some systemic bias in tech, with the good old boys’ club.  It’s not a quick, easy fix."

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