Black lawmakers give tech sector low marks amid Silicon Valley trip

Black lawmakers give tech sector low marks amid Silicon Valley trip

Black lawmakers traveling in Silicon Valley to discuss diversity and inclusion in the tech sector say that they’re so frustrated with responses received from companies they are considering proposing legislative action.

“When we get back with the Congressional Black Caucus, we’ve got to discuss what strategies we’re going to take,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said in a phone interview with The Hill.

After meeting with major tech firms like Facebook and Uber this week, the co-chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus Diversity Tech 2020 Task Force, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Butterfield say they are not optimistic diversity in tech will improve.

“We’ve got to find a legislative vehicle to which we can express our outrage,” Butterfield said.

The lawmakers floated taking action via legislation and voting against reductions in corporate income taxes as a way to twist tech firms' hands into taking more substantive action on improving diversity.

The threats come as the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress push to pass a tax reform plan by the end of the year that would include corporate tax reductions. Tech firms have vocally supported the proposed reforms.

Still, with Republicans in control of Congress and Democratic support of the tax plan unsure, it is unclear what impact such a scenario would have.

Nevertheless, when Lee and Butterfield get back to Washington, D.C., they plan to draft a report of their findings from meetings with tech leaders in the Bay Area. So far, they say their findings suggest that Silicon Valley rhetoric on diversity is just lip service.

“We were here two years ago. A few companies have moved the needle [in hiring more African-Americans] a bit. Most are either in the same place and some have gone backwards,” Lee said told The Hill over the phone.

“They say they want to achieve parity but they have no specific goals or pathways. It’s just talk but they have no plans,” she continued.

A recent study found that black and Hispanic representation in Silicon Valley has declined and forecasted likely drops of individuals of color in executive roles.

Lee and Butterfield have already met with Salesforce, Uber, Hustle, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Intel and Facebook. The lawmakers are scheduled to meet with Twitter and Lyft before they leave California.

The two say the meetings so far have not produced tangible progress or meaningful commitments they believe will improve diversity in tech.

“I came to the Valley with some degree of optimism, but I’m less optimistic now that I have arrived here,” Butterfield said.

The lawmakers singled out Intel as a glaring example of a company pledging to ramp up diversity, but failing to do so.

“It was especially appalling at Intel for a company of their magnitude to have no African-Americans on a 12-member board, even after it was called to their attention by 40-plus members of Congress,” Butterfield said.

Lee slammed the company, noting that since meeting with it in 2015, four spots on its board have opened up and none were filled by black individuals.

They say that part of the problem comes in technology companies’ definition of minorities. According to Lee and Butterfield, the tech firms they’ve spoken with define minority as the inclusion of not just racial groups, but also women, veterans and LGBTQ individuals.

The two would like to see a disaggregated approach to diversity that increases representation among African-Americans as well as other groups.

Butterfield says that because of this, he and Lee are not letting executives they speak to use the phrase “minority inclusion” because of its broad definition.

“You need to break down what diversity means to truly understand what diversity is,” Lee said.

The trip comes after they pressed Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on increasing the number of African-Americans employed at the social media giant, during her meeting with the caucus on Thursday.

Lawmakers in the meeting expressed frustration to Sandberg that black representation has not increased at Facebook despite the company's continued pledges. In the meeting, Sandberg committed to adding a black director to Facebook’s board “within the foreseeable future.”

Caucus members said that they were pleased with the commitment, but are withholding full judgment until they actually see results.

Lee and Butterfield on Tuesday both suggested the caucus won’t be getting what it wants anytime soon.

“We’re going to have to figure out a new way to approach these companies, because we’re a part of this country also,” Lee said. “We deserve access to these jobs.”