Google's Howard West Campus Only Addresses Part of the Diversity Problem In Tech
On March 23, 2017, Howard University announced the opening of a campus at the Google HQ in Mountain View, California. Fueled by a vision of opportunity and equity, this is a vehicle to help bring more black coders, engineers and tech professionals to Google's workforce and Silicon Valley as a whole. The 3-month residency program for computer science engineers, called Howard West, is greatly needed, but it leaves opens a lot of questions that have more to do with cultural climate and less to do with the talent aspects and logistics of being fully present for working in technology. Logistics and talent make it possible, but the cultural aspect makes it both probable and sustainable for black professionals to stay and thrive in Silicon Valley.
Housing, living expenses and transportation are three tenets that cannot be ignored in the the heart of the Valley. The physical space for existing in the Bay Area, the workspace and housing stipends are critical parts of the tech culture in Silicon Valley. Considering that the average rents in the Bay Area start from $2,300 per month and have been rumored to go as high as $6,000 per month for a two bedroom house in Palo Alto, the stipends are needed for most college students wanting to reside in the area. The rent gets higher the closer the properties get to the tech giants, and extensive commutes mean that residents want to be as close to work as possible. Even for those who wish to use mass transit, it is a fractured system that is not extensive. It is both expensive and impratical to rely solely on public transportation in the area, so personal vehicles become important. Enjoying time outside of work can also be expensive, not just because of transportation, but the costs of doing business, especially restaurants and entertainment, is high. Assuming that these kinds of barriers are mitigated by generous allowances, there is still the matter of culture. The culture is dominated by the people who work at the companies, and there are very few black people in the local tech economy. The black population in the Bay Area continues to fall, especially as the cost of living rises.
According to Google's own 2015 demographics, Black people made up 2 percent of the company's overall work force. One percent worked on the tech side and four percent made up the non-tech side. Only two percent were in leadership. This means that in all practical aspects of the job, that Black professionals will continue to be underrepresented, their voices and talents being averaged out compared to their peers. The pipeline is not merely a numbers issue, but an issue of acceptance and belonging. With smaller numbers compared to the rest of the tech talent base, this means that microaggressions go unchecked, accomplishments get downplayed and cultural isolation becomes a problem.
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This is a problem that Google is trying to address, but it needs to be accomplished system-wide. In an "unbiasing" training module on reWork called "Evaluating Subtle Messages," the problem of inclusion and the surrounding environment is acknowledged. The introduction for the training said, "Physical cues can also have a significant impact on an individual’s feelings of inclusion and their likelihood to engage in a particular activity. Research shows how individuals see themselves reflected in their surroundings (or the lack thereof) can have physiological and cognitive effects." But without personal responsibility, jokes in poor taste, stereotypes, and other situations where the impact doesn't match the intent, will continue happen. Many times, challenging the status quo day in and day out while trying to be the outlier statistically is too much for anyone to endure long term. Considering that many tech workers don't see a problem at all wth representation, the problem runs deep.
But recruiting black professionals into the tech industry isn't the same thing as retention. It's not hard to imagine people leaving tech because they feel unwelcome. Considering that the pay gap is still an issue, that mortgages for Black borrowers are still low, and that concern about confirming negative stereotypes is a genuine fear, establishing a home base and community is difficult. It will take practical and sustained effort from Silicon Valley to bring about the change needed to make Black tech professionals feel valued.