OAKLAND — Last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus visited Silicon Valley, on a trip largely dedicated to pushing major tech companies to increase the racial diversity of their workforces. That is an important goal, but it’s not enough for the Apples, Twitters and PayPals of the world to employ a particular number of members of racial minority groups. If black lawmakers want to see real change when it comes to the interaction between tech companies and communities of color, they should ask — and in some cases, require — tech giants to do much more.
Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, said during a panel discussion that she was “floored” to find out that at some tech companies only 1 percent to 2 percent of employees are black, and that she would consider regulations to address the disappointing numbers, Recode reported. I hope Ms. Waters and her C.B.C. colleagues remember that it’s not just the raw numbers of people of color that matter. It’s also important to examine which roles those people have in the company. Important decision-making power usually comes with leadership positions — in my experience, usually director level and above — but most black and Latino employees are entry level to mid-management. According to a 2017 report by Recode, the percentages of leadership roles held by black and Latino employees was only between 4 percent and 10 percent at seven major tech companies.
With this in mind, when concerned lawmakers scrutinize diversity at tech companies, they should look beyond the raw numbers to ask questions like: Do minorities typically have to have more accomplishments than their peers to be promoted? Do the companies enforce consistent expectations for each role? Are metrics for success clear and communicated? Are all employees given equal opportunities to achieve the goals that are required for promotion to leadership roles? Is there a concrete plan to increase diversity in leadership? All of these things make it more likely that members of underrepresented groups will be treated and promoted fairly — and that they will also be in positions to help shape its culture and its priorities.
The Verge reported that during the trip to Silicon Valley, caucus members met with nonprofits to discuss the so-called pipeline problem — the idea that lack of diversity in tech is a result of inadequate numbers of black and Latino students studying computer science. In fact, this is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to lack of diversity, but it’s one that tech companies tend to focus heavily on, often partnering with nonprofits and schools and pouring money into technical skills training for young people.
In future conversations, the caucus should push companies that boast about such pipeline solutions to go a step further and take a serious look at their effectiveness. Members should ask tech companies how they measure the success of program participants and the impact of their programs on the industry. For example, tech firms could release data on participants’ college matriculation rates, selected majors, admission to accelerators or other tech-focused training programs and employment rates. Keeping tabs on the success rates of these initiatives would ensure that companies are doing more than simply throwing money at the problem and are held accountable for whether their efforts are making a difference.
I was pleased to learn that the caucus delegation to Silicon Valley did address at least one issue other than inclusive hiring: They indicated that they planned to scrutinize the impact of major tech companies on the communities that surround their headquarters.
“My congressional district has been transformed by the technology sector,” Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said in a statement released by the C.B.C. “While many workers have benefited from this booming industry, this prosperity has not reached black residents in the Bay Area. As the C.B.C. Tech 2020 task force returns to Silicon Valley, our focus is expanding to encompass not only equity in the work force, but also ensuring opportunity and inclusion for black residents across our tech-driven economy.”
Caucus members have discussed the possibility of introducing legislation that would expand the Community Reinvestment Act — which requires that financial institutions to meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operate — to impose similar mandates on tech companies.
There are additional ways in which tech companies can have a positive impact on the people of color in the areas outside their campuses, like Oakland, where I live. One of these is the implementation of robust supplier diversity programs — business initiatives incentivizing the use of minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned, L.G.B.T.Q.-owned and disabled-owned businesses to provide the outside goods and services that companies need. Such programs are mandatory for government contractors but are optional in the private sector. Some tech titans already have such programs in place, and I spearheaded the creation of Facebook’s during my tenure there. The caucus should consider encouraging the many smaller tech companies to do the same, with an emphasis on contracting with companies with local communities.
The lawmakers who visited Silicon Valley obviously care very much about the impact of the tech industry on members of racial minority groups. I hope they continue to keep in mind — whether they’re having discussions with industry leaders or drafting litigation — what those of us who work in tech know well: that the still-dismal diversity numbers are just one small part of the problem.
Bärí A. Williams (@BariAWilliams) is a legal and operations executive in the tech industry and a start-up adviser.