By: Abe R. Emile

Silicon Valley’s short-sighted approach to dealing with President Trump’s travel-ban highlights a greater moral imperative for America at large: the lack of diversity in the tech industry, particularly among people of color and women. Both of Trump’s executive orders have attempted to ban immigrants from seven (now six) majority Muslims countries.  Both have been blocked by appellate courts in multiple states. But this was not the setback to Donald Trump’s administration immigration policy. Nearly 100 tech companies signed an amicus brief, which opposes Trump’s immigration ban. The amicus brief read:

“Immigrants are leading entrepreneurs…some of these businesses are large. Immigrants or their children founded more than 200 of the companies on the Fortune 500 list … Collectively, these companies generate annual revenue of $4.2 trillion, and employ millions of Americans.”  

These corporations had to join in the fight against policies that would affect their bottom line. They have developed an over reliance on high-skilled immigrants in a labor market where qualified native-born workers are lacking. But this reliance puts a band-aid on a larger problem and is misguided.  Communities coming together to combat an apprehensible immigration policy is a good thing; but the country still loses when we don’t seek to address the disparities in labor participation among different groups in the tech industry. The solution must start with serving our own communities first, with emphasis on poorer communities, people of color and women.

A 2015 study that researched 14 tech companies and was published in Fortune Magazine revealed that a heavy concentration of White and Asian men dominate the positions that are filled, while the number of women, Blacks and Hispanics were grossly underrepresented. Male technical workers made up between 51%-77% while women hovered around 23%-49%. Males also made up between 57% and 81% of leadership roles and women between 19% and 43%.  Blacks, Hispanics, American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and multi-racial groups comprised below 10% of these companies’ workforce, while Asians represented overall as low as 14% and as high as 43% of total workforce. Whites represented 50% to 73%.

These results have left many tech leaders contemplating how they can diversify their workforce.  Tristan Walker, the Black male founder of Walker & Company Brands, echoes how the issue of diversity has not changed, and he does not see it changing anytime soon.  A new reality will require systemic changes in America’s public education on the federal, state, and local levels. And policymakers must start where inequality starts: in schools in poorer districts whose composition is mostly minority students.

Inequitable investment in teaching basic skills in science, math, and technology has left 600,000 high-paying tech jobs across the United States being unfilled. More strikingly, Comprehensive data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published a staggering report of the racial inequality perpetuating the digital divide in the nation’s education system.  The report notes that Black, Latino and Native American students have less access to advanced math and science courses and are more likely to be taught by first-year instructors than White students. Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60% of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements. Less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students had access to the full range of math and science courses, which consists of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics, and Black and Latino students accounted for 40% of enrollment at schools with gifted programs, but only represented 26% of students in such programs.

There is some hope. Prior to leaving office, President Obama started a new initiative, CS for All (Computer Science for All) to empower all American students from grades K-12 to learn computer science skills and be equipped with the computational thinking skills needed to participate in a digital economy. While this effort has met severe funding challenges on the federal level, there has been growing momentum for this kind of initiative among various states and corporations (public-private ventures).

We surely have much further to go in fixing the lack of diversity in the tech industry. And we will have to find ways of continuing the momentum begun by President Obama in the era of Trump. But one thing is for sure, it must begin with investments in our minority students so they can compete in our high-tech, service-driven economy.