‘The new plantation’: How (and why) tech’s corporate giants haven’t successfully diversified their workforces

·13 min read
People of color are far less likely than white employees to hold management or professional roles at the nation’s top tech companies, USA TODAY found.
People of color are far less likely than white employees to hold management or professional roles at the nation’s top tech companies, USA TODAY found.

Charlotte Newman, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked as an economic policy adviser to New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker, says she had high hopes when she joined Amazon in 2017. But scanning the company leadership, she saw few women and people of color in positions of power.

“As a person of color coming in the door, how can you feel there is an upward trajectory for you when the executive layer of the company doesn’t have anyone who looks like you?” said Newman, who is a senior manager at Amazon and is Black.

USA TODAY used U.S. Census Bureau estimates of workforce demographics and employment records from 54 corporations including Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, to put numbers to the deep racial divide inside technology companies that are part of the Standard & Poor's 100, an index of the most highly valued firms in the stock market.

An analysis of that data found that Black and Hispanic workers are far less likely than white employees to work in management or professional roles at the nation’s top companies.

The young tech sector which prides itself on being innovative is reproducing the kind of gaping racial disparities commonly exhibited by more mature industries like banking.

In fact, little has changed since USA TODAY first investigated these companies’ level of diversity in 2014.

In 2016, 93% of Amazon's 105 top executives were white, making it the whitest leadership of the S&P 100 companies that USA TODAY surveyed.

More than three-quarters of the Amazon executives – 78% – were men, according to the most recent federal data Amazon has released publicly.

The company declined to provide more recent EEO-1 data, but USA TODAY reviewed company leadership using an internal Amazon staff directory.

Not a single Black executive reported directly to outgoing billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos, who stepped down on July 5, and little more than a handful sit on the teams of his direct reports, according to the review. Bezos’ successor, Andy Jassy, also has no direct reports who are Black.

Amazon told USA TODAY it doubled the number of Black directors and vice presidents last year and has similar goals for 2021, with a focus on increasing the number of Black women in mid-level and higher corporate roles.

By the time George Floyd drew his final breath under a white police officer’s knee on the South Minneapolis pavement last May, Newman says she knew deep in her bones it wasn’t enough to protest in the streets.

For years, Black colleagues had tapped on her door to quietly commiserate. They said they’d been hired into lower-level positions than white co-workers with similar qualifications and were passed over for promotions. Then there were the microaggressions and the racist comments.

So Newman decided to speak up about racial justice in a place few dare: inside her own company. In a federal lawsuit filed this year, she alleged she was hired at a lower level than she should have been and was underpaid, denied promotions, sexually harassed and subjected to racial stereotypes describing her as “too direct” and “scary” and looking “like a gorilla.”

A spokesperson said Amazon does not tolerate discrimination or harassment.

"We also reviewed Ms. Newman’s interview process, leveling and onboarding, and determined that she was properly placed in her role at the company," the company said in a statement.

Newman sees it differently.

“Is there a pattern of discrimination across the company that disenfranchises women and Black employees in particular and employees of color more broadly?” she said. “The answer is yes.”

USA TODAY used U.S. Census Bureau estimates of workforce demographics and employment records from 54 corporations including Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.
USA TODAY used U.S. Census Bureau estimates of workforce demographics and employment records from 54 corporations including Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Black and Hispanic employees disproportionately work in lower-level positions

Across all U.S. industries, white employees are three times as likely to be executives as Hispanic or Black employees.

But at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, white employees are five times as likely to land top jobs as their Hispanic co-workers and seven times as likely as their Black co-workers, USA TODAY found.

Women are less likely than men to be executives or managers in the nation’s workforce.

The disparities persist in the largest tech companies, with one gap that is notably wider: Black women are about half as likely as Black men to hold leadership jobs in big tech.

Almost 1 in 2 white employees at the tech firms examined by USA TODAY held professional roles. Only 1 in 5 Hispanic workers and 1 in 9 Black workers did. While the gap for Hispanics is on par with the U.S. labor force as a whole, it is almost three times wider for Black employees.

Overall, inequities at these tech companies stem from the roles people of color tend to fill. Black and Hispanic employees disproportionately work in lower-level and lower-paying positions, USA TODAY found.

Technology veteran and diversity advocate Shireen Mitchell
Technology veteran and diversity advocate Shireen Mitchell

For example, of the nearly 52,000 Black workers employed at Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, 64% are laborers. That's compared to 43% of Hispanic employees and 22% of white employees.

These disparities have existed since the industry's inception, said technology veteran and diversity advocate Shireen Mitchell.

“This data from USA TODAY reveals that, no matter what diversity initiatives these companies implement, they have yet to translate quantitatively into hiring and retention practices," she said.

Diversity consultant John Graham, calls tech "the new plantation."

“You can change the industry. You can change the day and age. But the model is still being replicated," said Graham, author of “Plantation Theory: The Black Professional's Struggle Between Freedom & Security.”

John Graham wrote “Plantation Theory: The Black Professional's Struggle Between Freedom & Security.”
John Graham wrote “Plantation Theory: The Black Professional's Struggle Between Freedom & Security.”

In 2014, big tech companies began opening up for the first time about how few women and people of color they employ.

At the time, analyses by USA TODAY and others revealed that major tech companies employ far fewer women and underrepresented groups than other industries, even in Silicon Valley. And not just in technical roles.

In roles such as sales and administration, people of color were also sharply underrepresented, with Black workers faring noticeably worse than Hispanic workers, USA TODAY found.

These disparities among well-paid professional workers, such as engineers and lawyers, are also significant because they contribute to the white-Black wealth gap.

The Conference Board, a private research group, found that tech has dramatically increased the number of top earners in the past decade, but just 4% are Black, compared with 6% in other industries.

Attrition among people of color in tech remains high

Despite a slew of mea culpas and ambitious goals to make their workforce less homogeneous, the numbers have barely budged in seven years, in part because even as companies hire more people of color, attrition rates remain high.

Rhett Lindsey
Rhett Lindsey

Rhett Lindsey, who is Black, used to recruit Android engineers at Facebook but says he felt ill at ease in the majority white culture.

A low point came last August in a virtual meeting to discuss Facebook’s goal of hiring more Black engineers. A white manager played a Drake song “Laugh Now Cry Later” whose chorus repeats the line: “Where the (n-word)s be at?”

Lindsey gave his two weeks’ notice in November and in December started his own tech company, Siimee, to tackle the same problems he encountered at Facebook by helping recruiters lower the risks of bias and encourage more inclusivity.

“I realized that although it was an amazing paycheck, stock options and benefits, it was not worth the stress,” he said.

Facebook says it’s focused on diversity, inclusion and racial justice in the workplace and in recruiting.

"We take seriously allegations of discrimination and have robust policies and processes in place for employees to report concerns, including concerns about microaggressions and policy violations,” the company said in a statement.

Apple, Google, Facebook employees become activists after George Floyd

Prominent Black tech CEO Charley Moore says he’s seeing a new sense of urgency to change the status quo.

Increasingly, companies are scrutinizing hiring, retention and workplace culture while committing funds to the Black community and building products and features that condemn racism and highlight the achievements of Black Americans.

“The martyrdom of George Floyd served as a catalyst last year to drive probably the greatest amount of energy and action around diversity and inclusion that I have seen since the anti-apartheid movement,” said Moore, founder and CEO of legal startup Rocket Lawyer, which has raised hundreds of millions from investors.

Charley Moore, founder and CEO of legal startup Rocket Lawyer
Charley Moore, founder and CEO of legal startup Rocket Lawyer

Pressure on the industry from shareholders and civil rights activists has never been higher. But the real spark was lit by employees.

Timnit Gebru, an artificial intelligence researcher and diversity advocate, publicly challenged her ouster from Google. Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, two Black women in public policy positions at social media company Pinterest, went public with charges of racial discrimination.

"No one knows this experience better than those who are in it,” said Ozoma, who after leaving Pinterest helped draft a bill in California that would allow workers to speak out about on-the-job discrimination, harassment and abuse without violating nondisclosure agreements and has worked at three out of the five Big Tech companies.

“You are not going to have a more ardent advocate for changing policy than someone who has heard the double talk and seen the marketing while experiencing being underpaid, underpromoted, underhired and underappreciated,” she said.

As protests over Floyd’s murder engulfed the nation last year, a group of Black Apple employees and their allies also spoke up.

CEO Tim Cook had just announced a $100 million racial justice fund to challenge “systemic barriers to opportunity and dignity.”

Frustrated over what they saw as a lack of career advancement opportunities for Black staffers and the company’s mishandling of racist incidents, the employees called on Apple to tear down those same barriers inside the company.

“As an industry leader, this company has a responsibility to be at the forefront of creating a workspace that functions properly for all its employees,” they wrote in an email to Cook.

The Apple employees made a series of demands. They sought measurable goals and a timeline to boost diversity, internal training on microaggressions, an annual diversity summit, and the appointment of a top diversity executive, among other actions.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook

According to the emails obtained by USA TODAY, Deirdre O'Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and people, answered the employees by saying that “change would not happen overnight” but that “Apple must do more to support our Black colleagues.”

At Apple, 80% of executives are white and the top ranks include just one Black woman and two Hispanic men, according to 2018 federal data, the most recent the company has released. Only Amazon has a higher percentage of white executives.

Disparities loom among Apple managers, too. Black men account for 1.6% and Black women 1.3% of management while Hispanic men make up less than 5% of managers and Hispanic women 2%.

Among professionals at the company, the pattern is similar, though one figure stands out. The company employs just 177 Black women out of 30,745 workers in professional roles. That's barely one-half of 1%.

Diversity at Apple is more plentiful in lower-level positions, with Hispanic workers holding 15% of those jobs and Black men and women 10%.

Apple told USA TODAY it’s working on multiple fronts to make its leadership ranks and workforce more inclusive.

Diversity measures are considered in annual reviews for every company leader. In the past year, Apple has filled 43% of open leadership roles in the U.S. with executives whose representation in tech has historically been low. Apple defines such workers as women, Black, Hispanic or Latino, multiracial or Indigenous peoples.

Out of 123 executives in 2018, 27 people, or 22%, met that definition. Nearly all (19) were white women. The other executives were 80 white and 16 Asian men.

In addition to firsthand accounts pouring out of tech companies, employees are taking their companies to court.

A discrimination lawsuit filed by a current employee and complaints from job applicants triggered a systemic probe by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into the hiring practices at Facebook.

In May, Pearl Thomas, a Black woman who worked in human resources, sued Amazon for racial discrimination. Hers is the fifth lawsuit in recent months from current and former employees, all women of color, alleging discrimination. The allegations range from being called the n-word to the existence of systemic racism at the company, with workers from underrepresented groups being promoted at lower rates and let go at higher rates.

“We are conducting thorough investigations for each of these unrelated cases, as we do with any reported incidents,” Amazon said in a statement. “We have found no evidence to support the allegations.

Is change coming to Big Tech?

Kathryn Finney, a technology industry veteran and a diversity advocate, is skeptical that this moment will swell into a movement.

In 1921, Finney’s great-grandparents’ house and restaurant were burned to the ground by an anti-Black mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Like most, her family never received a payout from their insurance company, which blamed them for the race massacre.

Finney, who is building an incubator and venture fund focused on Black innovation called the Genius Guild and throughout her career has tracked patterns of exclusion in the tech industry, sees parallels between the Black experience then and now.

“That was a prime example of corporate America failing Black folks,” she said. “How do you fix that? A year of a little bit of money isn’t going to change what needs to be changed.”

Have a tip? Reach Jessica Guynn at jguynn@usatoday.com or on Twitter @jguynn, Jayme Fraser at jfraser@gannett.com or on Twitter @jaymekfraser, Craig Harris at craig.harris@usatoday.com or 602-509-3613 or on Twitter @CraigHarrisUSAT and Dian Zhang at DZhang@gannett.com or on Twitter @dian_zhang_

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How we did it

  • Every year, companies send the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a one-page form called an EEO-1, counting workers by race, ethnicity and gender in 10 occupation categories. The U.S. Census Bureau also produces a summary of the American workforce that uses the same industry, occupation, race and ethnicity definitions as the EEO-1. USA TODAY compared how well represented Black and Hispanic people were at these companies versus the overall labor force. For some stories, we zoomed in on Census statistics for an industry associated with companies for which we had data: five companies in tech, six banks and seven food or retail corporations. We also reviewed corporation websites for racial and gender identities of board members, confirming with company officials as needed. Explore our database of EEO-1 employment records.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Amazon, Facebook and Google are failing Black, Hispanic workers

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