Black lawmakers launching effort to diversify tech sector

Black lawmakers launching effort to diversify tech sector
© Greg Nash

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on Tuesday will launch a push to increase African American representation in the tech sector.

The effort reflects concerns about a lack of diversity at companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

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“Many of the technology companies have African-Americans as very loyal customers, and many of those don’t have any African Americans on their boards,” said CBC Chairman G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldPelosi, Dems accuse GOP of moving goal posts on DACA deal Lawmakers push Microsoft to ban private arbitration in all discrimination cases Conyers resigns amid sexual misconduct allegations MORE (D-N.C.). “Their senior leadership within many of these companies is not inclusive, and the workforce is appalling. And their reinvestment in African-American communities is less than desirable.”

The CBC Tech 2020 initiative will launch Tuesday with an event featuring caucus members who will “outline diversity principles, discuss industry best practices, highlight African American students and entrepreneurs, and present legislation focused on increasing STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education,” the group said last week.

It’s part of a larger focus on diversifying the top ranks of corporate America, according to Butterfield.

In the last year, several major tech companies have released statistics detailing their gender and ethnic diversity for the first time. In many cases, black employees are represented in the low single digits in the companies' ranks — which are overwhelmingly white, Asian and male.

At Google, Facebook and Twitter, black employees comprise just 2 percent of the overall workforce and 1 percent of employees who have technical jobs. Other companies, like Apple and Microsoft, have slightly higher percentages of black employees.

“The numbers tell the story and action is long overdue,” said Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeAfghanistan moves reignite war authorization debate Lawmakers push Microsoft to ban private arbitration in all discrimination cases Hundreds demand US, UK, French action to end Yemen civil war MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Inclusion of African Americans in the tech workforce has been treated as an afterthought for far too long.”

In general, tech firms have said they want to diversify their workforces.

“As CEO, I’m not satisfied with the numbers on this page,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement accompanying the company's statistics. “They’re not new to us, and we’ve been working hard for quite some time to improve them. We are making progress, and we’re committed to being as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing our products.”

Butterfield said the tech companies his staff has met with had responded “enthusiastically” to the initiative.

“Many of these companies have told me and have told my staff that they are embarrassed with the numbers and they want to do better,” he said.

The initiative is designed to give the CBC a platform to work with companies and others to help build the pipeline from African-American communities to jobs at fast-growing tech companies.

“We want to talk about what these companies can do in helping develop a new generation of workers, of professionals, and that means STEM education,” Butterfield said.

He also suggested that the caucus might develop a scorecard to grade a company’s record on diversity.

The point, Butterfield said, is not to shame the companies over their diversity numbers — but he said that lawmakers are in a position to highlight the lack of diversity in the tech industry to their constituents if companies seem reluctant to address the issues themselves. 

Butterfield also said he expects companies will be eager to participate and that their cooperation will allow the CBC to boost diversity within the industry more effectively than if lawmakers acted on their own.

“I’m not looking for a legislative fix as much as I am a voluntary solution,” he said.

“I don’t know how we can mandate private companies to be diverse. I don’t know legislatively if we can do that directly.”