The Myth of the ‘Pipeline Problem’

(Bloomberg) -- Let's talk about race.

The topic of diversity in the technology industry has become a hot-button issue of late, with lawsuits flying in both directions.

I wrote a story Friday about large tech companies' failure to hire and retain black workers. In the days since, I've heard a fair amount of feedback on the story—mostly positive, but with some hot takes mixed in. One reader said the article highlighted "oppression addiction" among some black people, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but just 3 percent of the workforce of tech's largest firms.

At the heart of the issue's controversy is a Rorschach test of a question: Whose fault is it? Those skeptical of big tech have blamed the industry. Those who think representation is a simple matter of individual achievement—or lack thereof—have downplayed the role of companies.

Certainly, there are many contributing factors, including unequal access to education, traditionally biased recruiting methods and the tech industry's distance from the country's largest black populations, literally and metaphorically.

But perhaps the most cited reason for the disparity, the oft-discussed “pipeline problem,” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The argument that there aren't enough qualified black students or workers for the tech industry isn't just false, but especially pernicious. It allows tech companies to be complacent with their glacial progress and absolve themselves of responsibility.

One reader told me, "To get a good job in tech, one must grab and embrace one of the STEM disciplines. If you don't your color does not matter." The problem, in other words, lies in avoiding math class.

But the numbers paint a different picture. In 2014 to 2015, black students made up 7.1 percent of all bachelor's degree graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, according to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Blacks comprised 8.4 percent of all STEM-subject master's degree recipients the same year, as well as 4.2 percent of all doctoral degrees. Those figured haven’t changed dramatically since 2008.

It's true that these STEM degrees aren't exclusively in computer science, but the statistics are a reminder that there are far more science-minded black job candidates than many realize.

At every post-secondary education level, the share of black people with STEM degrees outstripped the percentage of black workers at major Silicon Valley firms. Among eight of the largest tech companies, black workers in technical roles rose to 3.1 percent in 2017, up less than a percentage point from 2.5 percent in 2014.

In recent decades, we've seen more progress in black educational achievement than representation in tech. The industry is up against a complex problem that requires difficult, thoughtful solutions. No one is asking tech companies to perform acts of charity, but if they can figure out how to spread information at the speed of light, make cars drive themselves and send rockets into outer space, they can figure out how to hire more qualified black people.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Apple is trying to avoid its own data scandal. The iPhone maker changed its App Store rules last week to limit how developers use information about iPhone owners’ friends and other contacts, quietly closing a loophole that let app makers store and share data without many people’s consent.

AT&T has the green light to swallow Time Warner. The $85 billion deal can go ahead without conditions, a judge ruled, setting the stage for a new wave of media and telecom consolidation. 

Seattle repealed its tax on large employers. In a victory for Amazon, the city council chucked its "head tax" law, less than a month after passing it.

Will ZTE get its lifeline after all? The Chinese telecom company's future is in doubt once again, as the U.S. Senate has moved to reverse President Donald Trump's decision to let the company buy U.S. equipment.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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