Several years ago, I interviewed a young STEM-focused African-American student, “Anita,” for a scholarship program. Anita was the first in her family to pursue college, and when I asked what propelled her through her difficult Advanced Placement courses while caring for younger siblings and jugging part-time jobs in Oakland, she revealed a teacher’s comment that cut her to the core but ironically spurred her forward. He’d told her that she wasn’t college material and was likely to end up a prostitute like the other girls from her neighborhood.
In all the recent discussion about Silicon Valley’s “man problem,” too little attention has been given to the specific experiences of women such as Anita. Diversity seems to only apply to the affluent white women who attended the same schools and share social networks with the male founders. That’s a huge problem.
This fall, for the first time, students of color became the majority in American public schools. This is the workforce of the near future. A strict focus on gender, without looking at how race and ethnicity fundamentally change the dynamic, threatens to exacerbate the problem.
Women of color experience gender bias and sexual harassment as do white women, often at higher rates and layered with racial stereotypes. Some of these may seem like relatively minor annoyances — constantly being mistaken for the other Latina in the office, for example, or bias about hair, ethnic attire or accents. Others can be immediately career-jeopardizing. Women of color frequently are asked to represent their company at community events and recruiting fairs, taking them away from their workplace. In my research, employees often are passed over for promotion because their contributions aren’t as visible as their counterparts, who were able to spend more time in the office focusing on their jobs.In recent years, the advancement of white women in the private sector has eclipsed that of people of color, regardless of gender. White women have been the largest beneficiaries of workplace affirmative action programs. In research conducted by the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI), young women of color perceived race-based stereotypes as much more ominous barriers than those based on gender. These became more internalized by people of all backgrounds. It’s no surprise that women of color tend to have a heightened sense of outsider status in Silicon Valley than their white counterparts. This has consequences.
A 2007 Corporate Leavers Survey conducted by LPFI showed that white women are 1.5 times more likely than white men to leave the workplace due to the cumulative effect of subtle biases. People of color, regardless of gender, leave at more than 3.5 times that rate solely due to unfairness.
It’s time for tech leaders to absorb some of the lessons already learned in other professions. First, gender issues, while nuanced and complicated, tend to be easier to address than issues of race, so many companies are content to make gender parity the centerpiece of their diversity efforts. Also, simplistic approaches to tackling diversity — putting policies on paper and trainings in place — don’t address problems as they come up on a case-by-case basis.
To tackle Silicon Valley’s gender problems, we must recognize that women aren’t a monolithic group. Tech diversity will move forward when women from all backgrounds, as well as underrepresented men, work to understand how their experiences overlap and diverge. Anita and the thousands of girls like her deserve their shot.
Freada Kapor Klein is the co-chairwoman of the Kapor Center for Social Impact and the founder of the Level Playing Field Institute. She wrote this article for this newspaper.