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The Reasons Why There Aren’t More Black Engineers In Silicon Valley

Maybe the problem isn’t lack of candidates, maybe it’s that the pipeline is broken.

The Reasons Why There Aren’t More Black Engineers In Silicon Valley

Joshua Mann is something of an anomaly in the technology industry. He’s a black engineer. In a report in the International Business Times, Mann, who is on his way to earning a PhD at Purdue to eventually go on to design rocket engines that could transport humans to Mars, is held up as an example of the appalling lack of diversity in Silicon Valley.

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It’s with good reason. Well-publicized diversity reports reveal the numbers of black, hispanic, and female employees at companies such as Intel, Google, and Facebook remain low. Some minority leaders felt that investing in diversity was a good first step. After Intel made its $300 million pledge, Shellye Archambeau, a tech industry veteran currently serving as CEO of MetricStream, told Fast Company, “By putting a specific target that they’re trying to achieve, by putting money behind it, it’s going to make them hold themselves accountable to make some changes. I hope others will follow their lead.”

The Pipeline Myth

The chronic excuse continues to be that there is a lack of qualified candidates. However, the IB Times reports that African-Americans earned 4.4% of master’s degrees in engineering and 3.6% of engineering PhDs in 2014, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, which brings the talent pool to nearly 5,000 each year. There are an additional 745 graduates with undergraduate or master’s degrees in computer science.

The problem therefore, is the pipeline, but not because it isn’t full, as Michael Learmonth reports in the IB Times. It’s actually broken. He writes:

It is broken in part because Silicon Valley is not looking in the right places, and black students interested in STEM careers are choosing other industries that have been more welcoming, such as oil and gas, automotive and civil engineering. It’s a challenge that tech firms in Silicon Valley and Seattle face as they attempt to raise the percentage of blacks from the current 1% or 2% to something that looks more like America, or the markets they’re trying to serve.

Gary S. May, dean of the college of engineering at Georgia Tech, which produces more black engineers than any other institution in the U.S., says the schools of choice for Silicon Valley recruiters continue to be Stanford and Berkeley. This is despite the fact that 28% of all engineering degrees awarded to blacks are earned at historically black colleges and universities, according to the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

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Yet even as Google claims 35% of its black engineers come from historically black colleges, they are farming those with the most recognizable names, and not Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, or Tougaloo College in Mississippi, both of which have historically produced STEM grads.

No One Like Me

Another issue is the lack of role models. Joshua Mann did two internships at SpaceX and another at Blue Origin, the rocket startup founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Although he says he felt welcomed and valued, Mann told the IB Times that he was only one of two black engineers. The others who worked there were mechanics or held other roles.

The problem of being the only person of color, or one of a very few, has an impact as the employee tries to rise through the ranks. In a recent conversation with Fast Company, the CEO of Cooler Heads Intelligence, Lauren Tucker, said she’s observed that many female, African-American, and hispanic colleagues leave companies while at the top of their game—but who are not quite able to crack the glass ceiling of the C-suite. Tucker says their moves were always prefaced by the same refrain: “I need to go where I see people like me being successful at the top.” The reason, she believes, is that existing executives aren’t comfortable putting their social, political, and cultural capital behind a candidate who doesn’t share a common background.

The Right Code

Another reason for the lack of diversity, according to this report, is that while Mann and other graduates have coding skills, they are more likely to graduate with mechanical or electrical engineering degrees, which are not as marketable at software-dependent tech firms. Karl Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, countered this with the following statement: “It’s not what you learn that matters; it’s how you learn and how you solve problems. That is classic engineering education.”

To address this at the applicant level, one company is taking a different approach. Saama Technologies recruits candidates who don’t have computer science degrees but do have quantitative skills in math, physics, statistics, or even psychology to go into a four-month paid training program before hiring.

The Importance Of Community

If more companies adopt this practice, it could eventually impact another isolating factor that doesn’t help attract diverse candidates. People tend to live near where they work. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are mostly white. As former Google employee Jamesha Fisher told Fast Company, when she landed in the Bay Area, she became aware of a systematic stigmatism for being both black and female, which made her feel like “the odd egg.” She had to work to develop a support circle of peers and mentors, in part through social media, so she could feel more a part of a community.

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Though an important glimpse into the current lack of diversity among the fastest moving businesses in our economy, the report also illuminates how much work still needs to be done to change the ratio. We know that diversity is good for innovation and therefore a business imperative. Laura Weidman Powers, CEO of Code2040, put it best when she told Fast Company: “It’s not [the tech industry’s] problem. It’s our problem. It’s everybody’s problem.”

Related: How To Start Fixing Tech’s Diversity Problem

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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