Students Respond To Facebook Claim That Diversity Is Hard To Find

By Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Interesting article about the lack of diversity in tech (specifically from a student’s perspective). According to 2015 data from the Computing Research Association, Black and Latino students comprise about 13 percent of undergraduates who earn degrees in computer science, computer engineering or information studies, however far fewer are finding jobs in those fields. This story takes a look at why.

San Francisco Chronicle

The Internet, as it is wont to do, exploded in a fit of fury this month after Facebook’s head of diversity blamed the company’s feeble progress in boosting its black, Latino and female employee population on a lack of qualified applicants.

Arguments ensued — over the pipeline of workers, tech education and the commitment of companies that have set goals of diversifying their workforces, but whose progress has all but stalled.

Largely missing from these arguments were the very people tech companies and pundits were talking about: students.

In interviews with The Chronicle, several black and Latino college students and recent alumni pursuing careers in tech said the Facebook kerfuffle barely even registered.

They’ve heard it all before.

“It’s frustrating, but you can’t let that kind of messaging stop you from achieving your dreams,” said Elio Morillo, 23, a student leader at the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, who now works in Pasadena at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Us black and Hispanic people, we go out there knowing this is the challenge that we face and that we have a lot to overcome, and a lot to prove.”

Some understanding
Young men and women of color are acutely aware of how few black and Latino engineers and programmers there are at big companies like Facebook and Google. And though they hate hearing it, and many want to change the status quo, they kind of understand.

“I know the talent exists,” Morillo said. “But there’s a struggle in that a lot of companies aren’t all trained in finding people and they’re not doing the most effective job of recruiting. But at the same time, we have an education system in this country that systematically leaves black and Latino students behind.”

There are other issues at play.
Black and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to leave the industry, and may be hesistant to apply for certain jobs because of biased language in job postings and descriptions. Amorphous qualifications like “culture fit” can psych out even the most qualified candidates. And though black and Latino students comprise about 13 percent of undergraduates who earn degrees in computer science, computer engineering or information studies, according to 2015 data from the Computing Research Association, far fewer are finding jobs in those fields.

Davon Gill, 27, who graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology, left the industry because he “did not see a future in tech.”

“Many applicants of color do not aspire to work for large companies because they do not feel as though they would ever make it,” said Gill, who is black. “If one of us would get a job, most of us believed it would be short-lived.”

Part of that has to do with the culture of tech firms, which can feel incongruous to black or Latino workers.

“There’s a retention problem, absolutely,” said Barry Cordero, 37, the acting CEO and chairman of the board at the Hispanic engineers group, himself an engineer in Los Angeles. “If they’re just checking a box, that’s not enough. It’s the why behind the thing. Why are you doing this? Why do you want black and Hispanic engineers to join your organization? If you’re doing this to check a box, the outcome will be a checked box until the employee figures out they’re a checked box and then they’ll leave.”

In its first public comment on the issue since diversity chief Maxine Williams seemed to implicate the nation’s education system and the pipeline in Facebook’s diversity struggles, the company reaffirmed its commitment to bringing in more women and people of color.

“For Facebook, this is not about blame or excuses, or the negation of the great talent that exists in the software engineering space,” the company wrote to The Chronicle. “We want more women, people of color and others who bring diverse perspectives across all of our businesses — both technical and nontechnical.”

Predominantly male
Facebook’s most recent data revealed that its diversity has barely budged since it began reporting its numbers in 2014. Though the company reported growth in the percentage of female workers, the proportion of Latino and black workers remained stagnant: About 4 percent of employees are Latino and 2 percent are black.

At Google, which also recently updated its diversity data, 2 percent of the workforce is Latino and 3 percent is black. The company boasted about its hiring data, which proved better than its overall diversity: 4 percent of new employees in 2015 were black and 5 percent were Latino.

It’s an industrywide problem.
According to a report released this year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the tech industry’s leadership is about 80 percent male and more than 90 percent white or Asian American.

“A lot of black and Hispanic families just aren’t aware of computer science as an option,” Cordero said. “How do we make them aware? How do we show them the way?”

In Williams’ original remarks, which she made upon the release of Facebook’s most recent numbers, she wrote that “it has become clear that at the most fundamental level, appropriate representation in technology or any other industry will depend upon more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system.”

Students, drawing on their own personal experience, said there’s some truth to that.

Ángel Perez, 20, who is a senior computer science engineering major interning at Microsoft this summer, went to private school in Puerto Rico. It was the best school around, he said, but he still didn’t have access to advanced placement courses or other specialized programs. When he got to college, it was easy to feel underqualified and inadequate.

“A lot of Latinos will miss out on opportunities because of how they view themselves,” he said. “If you start thinking that way, you just take yourself right out of the game. And if you have less people backing you, less people looking out for you, it becomes a lone wolf scenario and you have to work that much harder to bring it every time. ”

Courting talent early
Perez suggested a baseball-like approach, where companies would start scouting and training young talent long before college.

In addition to Ivy League schools, technical colleges and local powerhouse Stanford University, Facebook routinely recruits at several historically black colleges and universities and Latino-serving institutions, a company representative said.

They include Howard University, Spelman College, Morgan State, all historically black; and UC Riverside, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Monterey Bay, whose student bodies are at least 25 percent Latino.

A search on LinkedIn shows that Facebook also recruits from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Morillo works. More than 20 ex-JPL workers, including engineers who now work on high-profile projects like its Oculus virtual reality headset and the Facebook Connectivity Lab, which recently launched an Internet-broadcasting drone.

Last year, Facebook was one of the sponsors for the engineers group’s annual conference. It didn’t renew its sponsorship this year, Cordero said.

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