Achieving equality in the tech industry begins in the classroom

Despite ongoing concerns over unemployment, one sector of the American economy that has enjoyed steady growth is the tech industry. Naturally, the industry’s continued growth and prosperity has lead countless young Americans entering the workforce to seek careers in the field. Access to the tech industry, however, is apparently highly restricted along racial lines, and it appears that some of the biggest firms in the arena are trying to keep that a secret. Back in 2011, CNNMoney filed a request for numbers sent from major tech firms to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding their employees’ demographics. The request, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, was blocked. Only a few firms agreed to release the information anyway, and the results are startling.

Based on data collected from Intel, Dell and Ingram Micro, African-Americans comprise just 6 percent of the tech workforce in contrast to the 11 percent they make up of the general workforce. Looking at top executives, the numbers are even more damning. At Intel, only 1.3 percent of its top officials are black. The same goes for Dell, where out of a pool of 137 executives, there are no Hispanic representatives and just one African-American.

The bigger firms refused to release any information at all. Apple, Google, Netflix, Yahoo and Oracle all chose to keep the demographics of their employees confidential.

The reasons behind these disparities are complex and hard to boil down into a neat answer. Before attacking the hiring practices of these firms – there is no evidence of discriminatory job placement – it is instructive to look at public education and socioeconomic conditions in communities with high African-American and Latino populations.

African-American and Latino students are consistently the most underrepresented in Advanced Placement STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – courses. According to CollegeBoard, only 3 percent of the 30,000 students who took the AP Computer Science exam in 2013 were African-American. Eleven states saw no participation by black students at all.

As Jack Smith IV points out in BetaBeat, degree programs in tech are also costly and unaccredited, meaning they cannot be covered using private student loans.

These barriers perpetuate economic inequality along racial lines. Ensuring equal access to advanced STEM courses in public schools will not only prepare students for careers in growing industries, but may even lead to students pursuing tech careers who otherwise would have never considered it.

Thankfully, there are people working toward this goal. General Assembly, a private school in New York City with a focus on engineering and technology, recently established the “Opportunity Fund” scholarship for African-Americans, Latinos and women. Early notable supporters of this scholarship include Microsoft, Google and the rapper Nas.

The scholarship is a great start and will likely benefit many, but again, it is imperative to address the problem from its root. Investment in STEM programs in public schools with large minority populations along with strengthened affirmative action programs in major firms will be most effective in breaking these glass ceilings.

There are millions of individuals out there with untapped potential who could easily be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Ensuring everyone’s equal access to the tech industry has the potential to benefit the entire world.