All Star Code student - press image
All Star Code: the non-profit helps young black and Latino men become tech entrepreneurs © Natalie Keyssar/All Star Code

Minerva Tantoco, who was raised in Queens, New York, by Filipino parents, says her background has worked both for and against her.

“In some ways it was helpful, in that Asians have a reputation for being good at math — and I happened to be good at math,” she says.

But the tech entrepreneur and former chief technology officer for New York City says that she found “it was a hindrance when I moved to the management side”.

The experience of Ms Tantoco, who has also held senior tech roles in banking, is reflected in the low rate of ethnic minorities that hold leadership positions.

In the US, this is 17 per cent, while in the UK the share is even lower at just 2.6 per cent, according to a 2018 report by Colorintech, a non-profit working to promote inclusion in the UK’s digital economy.

“When you want to advance to become a managing director or run a business unit, that’s when they want to look for someone who looks like a CTO,” says Ms Tantoco. “And I’ve been told I don’t look like a CTO, whatever that means.”

When it comes to employment at all levels in the tech business, the UK performs better than the rest of industry. Of those in digital technology jobs, 15 per cent are of black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, according to the 2018 Tech Nation report. Across all UK jobs, that figure is only 10 per cent.

Meanwhile, the US still has work to do. Black employees account for almost 12 per cent of the workforce but less than 8 per cent of computer and maths workers, according to the Brookings Institution, a think-tank. And while Hispanics make up almost 17 per cent of all workers, fewer than 7 per cent are computer and maths workers.

The gaps extend beyond Silicon Valley, says Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Programme. “We see under-representation of racial and ethnic groups both in the high-end digital areas but also in mid-tech,” he says, referring to the IT jobs in all sectors of the economy.

Nevertheless, Dion McKenzie, Colorintech’s co-founder and an investor in both UK and US companies, believes the US is ahead of the UK when it comes to addressing the under-representation of ethnic minorities in tech.

He cites the fact that all Colorintech’s backers are US companies. “And in terms of the understanding and communication that there’s a problem, the US is leaps and bounds ahead of the UK,” he says.

Here, America’s past has played a role. “If you look at the history of racial injustice in the US, it’s been a big prompter of conversations,” says Mr McKenzie. “It comes up politically and culturally, and that’s spurred things on.”

More recently, increased concerns about the power of big US tech companies and their contribution to inequality has led to a mood change, according to Mr Muro.

“They’re going to be held to the same standards as the rest of industrial America,” he says. “So they’re somewhat on the defensive.”

Market forces could also play a role, particularly since the Trump administration has slowed down the processing of H-1B visas, on which tech companies heavily rely to bring in workers from overseas.

With competition for tech talent heating up, companies may be forced to spread their recruitment net more widely, including hiring more ethnically diverse candidates. “It’s a problem but it’s susceptible to improvement by a tight labour market,” says Mr Muro.

There are other reasons for the sector to be more inclusive, argues Mr McKenzie. “Tech companies are trying to build global at-scale businesses like Facebook and Google that touch billions of users,” he says. “And billions of users don’t look white and middle class.”

In the US, growing awareness of the need to increase ethnic diversity in the tech sector has prompted the creation of organisations such as All Star Code, a computer science education non-profit helping black and Latino young men to become tech entrepreneurs. Another is Code2040, which offers professional development to black and Hispanic computer science students to help build their confidence and networks.

Meanwhile, Mr McKenzie sees progress in the appointment by many Silicon Valley companies of a chief diversity officer, whose role is to focus on this throughout the organisation. “That might mean having diversity in HR policies or helping marketing teams understand some of the cultural sensitivities,” he says.

For the UK, the challenge for the tech sector will be to reflect shifting demographics. In 2011, ethnic minorities represented about 14 per cent of the population in England and Wales, a figure that is projected to more than double by 2051. Mr McKenzie believes that while developing the kinds of support programmes seen in the US will be important, so will changing the mindset of the next generation of successful tech start-ups.

“They’re trying to disrupt the status quo but they really need to disrupt internally,” he says. “If we apply that same innovation and disruption to diversity, we’ll get there.”

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