It seems everyone is talking about the lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields, which are heavily dominated by white and Asian males. What’s surprising is the few women, blacks and Hispanics in the field who are joining in the chatter. What’s not surprising is why they’re keeping quiet — engineers recently reported that advocating for diversity was equivalent to a death sentence for their career.
Makinde Agdeabo, who is black, learned to cut his own hair because he was the only black person in his group of more than 100 at his Microsoft internship and no one else had a black barber.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad, who is now an engineering manager at Pinterest, said that during two job interviews, he was asked why blacks sat at the same lunch tables as white people and about the evolution of the terms for black people — including the n-word. He rejected their job offers, simply telling them it wasn’t a cultural fit, and moved on.
“If that stuff makes you angry, it will hold you back,” said Lloyd Carney, CEO of Brocade Communications Systems, who is black. “You can’t be angry. You have to be better than that. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is.”
It can seem unfathomable that women and minority groups working in Silicon Valley don’t want to advocate for themselves, but the hassle and stigma of pushing back can serve as a deterrent.
Kate Matsudaira, who now owns Seattle-based career counseling site Popforms Inc. at age 34, has work experience from Amazon and Microsoft on her résumé. When she was working at these companies, Matsudaira said she would join fantasy football leagues and wear cargo pants in order to fit into the male-dominated tech environments.
“As soon as you put yourself in the camp of the people that talk about ‘the issues,’ you’re no longer the person that works hard. You’re the person that spoke out,” she said.
Those who don’t want to advocate shouldn’t have to. It’s unfair to put responsibility on an individual to change things for an entire group. Some may even argue that their success stories will be enough to eventually bridge this gap.
The problem is that this approach hasn’t been working.
Minority groups have been waiting for higher-ups to “realize” that these stigmas and stereotypes about them simply aren’t true, and to demonstrate that women, blacks and Latinos can do the job as well as a white or Asian man simply by doing their jobs in the STEM space.
According to recent numbers released by Facebook, Google and Twitter, only 1 percent of engineers are black, and only about 3 percent are Hispanic. Women are also underrepresented, taking less than 30 percent of jobs and less than 20 percent of tech positions at big tech companies.
It’s true these individuals might gain respect as others become aware of their talents, but first they must go through the obligatory stereotypes — the person at the board meeting who asks a woman to get him a cup of coffee and never guessing she’s the director, or the customers who shake the hand of a white salesman first and never guessing the black man standing next to him is the CEO.
The biggest issue is that the mindsets about those who have the abilities needed to succeed in STEM fields and those who don’t aren’t changing. Fellow peers and higher-ups see these few and far between female, black and Hispanic talents as the exception for the group, not the rule.
Take the case of Ana Medina. The 20-year-old computer sciences major scored a scholarship to a Google Developer Conference, and she was asked by one of the participants if she’d gotten in because she was a girl. When a picture of her was posted from the event, people commented on her cleavage.
She told Bloomberg that she wanted to post something about this reaction on Twitter but was advised by her friends to brush it off.
Why isn’t it OK to be angry?
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has been very open about the workplace culture struggles of women in Silicon Valley with her #BanBossy campaign and speaking out against the idea that women have to “lean in” to male-dominated culture to be accepted. Has this advocacy changed peoples’ perceptions of her as a strong and competent leader?
Yes, there may be stigmas about minorities who are “advocates,” but that there already are stigmas for these minority groups, stereotypes that are attached to them as soon as they walk through the door for an interview or into a board meeting.
The main argument for keeping quiet is that your peers will only see you as the “advocate,” not a strong employee, but don’t they already see you as the “black woman” or the “Hispanic man,” labels that come with their own assumptions that must be proven wrong?
Change in assumptions hasn’t come to Silicon Valley, despite the tech minorities who are quietly proving them wrong every day.
Medina said she hopes to succeed in the tech industry and that she doesn’t want to keep quiet about her experience. “The advice [to brush it off] leaves you to think you’re probably not the only one who experiences things like this,” she said. “The industry shouldn’t be like this. It’s just not OK.”