A candid discussion on Microsoft, African Americans, tech and inequality

At Windows Central, we cover all things Microsoft including the context of the industry and world in which it exists and which impacts the company's operations. The topic of inclusion is something we've diligently addressed.

As the U.S. this month honors the often ignored contributions of people of African descent, I turn my attention to the challenge African Americans have faced and currently face at Microsoft, in the tech industry, and even in tech blogging.

A troubled history

It is impossible to address this topic honestly without acknowledging the sensitive issue of race and inequality. Raw data reflecting a company's employment percentages for race, money spent on outreach efforts, or internal inclusion programs and strategies is valuable, but it represents shallow data points that merely scratch the surface of a complex issue.

The real challenge includes nuances of intentional and unintended bias and the long-term cultural, social and personal effects of centuries of slavery and institutional racism on wealth distribution, access to opportunities and education. Many companies cite the standard reply that the "pipeline" of African Americans to the tech industry is insufficient, thus the poor representation of blacks in tech. There is some truth to that claim.

Much (though not all) of it is a product of an unequal distribution of resources between black and white communities where many black families can't afford college to prepare young adults for these jobs, however. Anecdotally, if I had not received a partial four-year academic scholarship, I might not have a degree today.

I acknowledge the Civil Rights movement has improved things. But as we address this topic of poor representation of blacks in tech we must realize that the biases that prevented my grandmother from drinking from a certain fountain less than 100 years ago were not legislated out of the hearts of her contemporaries, nor potentially their children and grandchildren. Nor did it undo the system of entrenched relationships that perpetuate inequality in various industries to this day. The fact that only four percent of Microsoft's 124,000 employees are African American (when blacks make up 13 percent of the population) reflects this sad legacy of racial inequality in America.

Blacks in tech, the numbers speak

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella (Image credit: Windows Central)

Companies file Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO-1) forms with the federal government that show the actual breakdown of the number of people from specific groups employed in various capacities within a company. Facebooks 2016 EEO-1 reveals that just 13 of its 296 executives, senior officials and managers were black. Microsoft's 2015 EEO-1 for the same category reveals only four of its 155 top execs were black. Other companies like Google and Yahoo, and the other categories including sales, technicians, professionals and more, fared no better.

This data has seen little change over the years. Microsoft's 2017 workforce demographic reflects that just 2.7 percent of tech employees, 6.9 percent of non-tech and 2.2 percent of Microsoft's leaders are black. The 18.9 percent in retail likely reflects a bulk of employees impacted to some degree by social and financial barriers to educational opportunities limiting them to these positions.

This is not a denial of individual responsibility to diligently pursue opportunities. It is, however, a recognition that there are social barriers that make the attainment of those goals, even when sincerely pursued, often more difficult to attain for African Americans. Microsoft and other tech giants recognize this reality.

Microsoft's inclusion efforts

Microsoft Logo at Ignite

Microsoft Logo at Ignite (Image credit: Windows Central)

In 2016, Microsoft donated $1,000,000 to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It also offers a $20,000 Blacks at Microsoft Scholarship, which has a March 1, 2018, deadline.

In 2011, black students received just six percent of STEM bachelor degrees, four percent Masters and two percent PhDs. Conversely, whites received 65.5 percent of STEM undergraduate degrees and 71 percent of STEM jobs. In 2015, Microsoft partnered with iUrban to help expose students of color to STEM jobs at the company.

Furthermore, Microsoft's Blacks Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a partnership between Africans at Microsoft and Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) designed to advance Microsoft's global diversity strategy. The more than 800 employee group sponsors an annual BAM Minority Student Day in February to expose underrepresented ethnic groups to opportunities in tech. The group also provides employee and college mentoring and helps implement corporate diversity plans.

Additionally, in 2014, John Thomas became Microsoft's first black board of directors chairman in the company's 40-year history. All of this progress, however, is tempered by the reality of challenges that persist. For instance, the Congressional Black Caucus on December 20, 2017, petitioned Microsoft to extend its new policy not to force private arbitration for sexual harassment cases to include race discrimination cases. A sobering context for this request is that two-thirds of African Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics Americans see racial discrimination as a major issue in the tech industry, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Where are the black tech bloggers?

Except for Web Video Producer Marques Brownlee, who has millions of followers of his gadget reviews, Booredatwork hosts, and a few others, blacks covering the world of tech are as meagerly represented as blacks in tech. Those few black vloggers at the forefront are exceptions who have little reliance on established outlets.

A cursory glance of the roster of writers of most major tech sites and blogs reveal an anemic representation of African Americans. This is a reality that if addressed, like blacks in tech, would add diversity and perspective that would benefit the industry.

Finally, as an African American man, I'm aware of and applaud the progress that's been made in recent decades. It's important, however, that the world of tech and beyond remain cognizant of the progress yet to be made if efforts toward inclusion and equality are to be realized.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!