The technology industry has a long history of failing at finding, retaining and elevating women of color.
It’s easy to see how the needs of minority communities have been ignored, discriminated against and underrepresented in tech — largely because their presence is almost nonexistent in a field dominated primarily by white men.
After all, Black women hold 3%, Latinas hold 1% and Native American women hold just .03% of technology jobs, according to research from women’s advocacy groups. Similarly, though Asians have become the second-largest racial group of tech professionals, behind white people, research shows Asian women are less likely to become executives in Silicon Valley than their white peers.
Of course, it’s not just a lack of diversity that affects minority groups. As is the case in so many aspects of life, implicit and explicit bias against women and people of color can also run rampant in the tech products we see every day.
“We can only imagine what businesses might have taken off, what products consumers might have enjoyed ... had women and people of color enjoyed equal access to capital and opportunity.”
Facial recognition software is a profound example of that. In 2017, Joy Buolamwini, an activist and a computer scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, found that several face analysis software struggled or failed to detect faces with darker skin tones or varied facial structures. She said the programs’ flaws came from machine learning data sets that underrepresented people with darker skin tones.
And implicit bias can show up in other forms of artificial intelligence software. A ProPublica investigation found that software by Northpoint, a consulting and research firm, used to predict the likelihood that criminal defendants would become repeat offenders overestimated risk for Black people and underestimated risk for white people. Black defendants were “77 percent more likely to be pegged as at higher risk of committing a future violent crime” than white defendants, according to the organization’s research.
Without women of color to help bring their experience to the designing table, people of color and women are left unserved by technology.
Tackling Weak Points
In the last few years, a wide range of groups and organizations have started tackling the industry’s weak points. There are advocacy groups, like LatinoTech and Black Women Talk Tech, which help fund, support and prepare entrepreneurs, engineers, designers and more to change the tech landscape.
And now Morgan Stanley, one of the world’s premier investment banks, has created the Multicultural Innovation Lab to examine the issue. They found that the lack of investment in marginalized and underrepresented groups is a trillion-dollar loss for the tech industry.
The Lab published a study, which stated in part: “We can only imagine what businesses might have taken off, what products consumers might have enjoyed, and what innovations and returns might have been realized had women and people of color enjoyed equal access to capital and opportunity,” the study reads. (There have been numerous studies and accounts over the years showing female founders get turned away by predominantly-male investment boards.)
Entrepreneurs Of Color Step In
While groups and multinational corporations have taken notice, there are a number entrepreneurs of color trying to tackle the problem on the ground.
Elizabeth Vilchis is one of many businesswomen trying to shape a future in technology for people like herself.
When Vilchis develops new products, she thinks about the kids in her New York City neighborhood. She reflects on her parents, immigrants from Mexico, who don’t speak much English. And she considers who the creators of most tech are: white men who can’t fully understand the experiences and needs of people in her community.
“You need to build products that speak to the future of this country,” she told HuffPost. Of the many products and apps today, even trivial applications, like games, she said, “They don’t speak to me, or a lot of the kids from my community. We have so many more pressing needs.”
A mechanical engineer, Vilchis has dedicated years of her career advocating for STEM education among young women and people of color. She is also CEO of LatinoTech, which encourages Latinx entrepreneurship in the tech industry by providing networking opportunities, pitch nights, investor dinners and hackathons. Vilchis wants to develop a collaborative group of diverse leaders who can help shape diverse technology.
As an immigrant, “there is a tremendous amount of pressure to be that success story,” Vilchis said. “But it takes a lot of people to be involved for this to have a real impact.”
Vilchis continues to push for inclusivity. In the back of her mind, she thinks about people who may speak a different language or may not have a high level of technological fluency.
“My parents use technology on a day-to-day basis,” Vilchis said. “As a person of color, being able to be in the room not only to represent my own perspective about what’s exciting in tech, I can also add the perspective of my parents and how it will impact them.”
Vilchis isn’t alone in her endeavors. Entrepreneur Renee King is also using her parents as inspiration for innovation.
King, who has a background in pharmaceutical sales and marketing, isn’t an engineer or software designer. She’s a caregiver to her two parents. Her mother has ALS, a neurodegenerative disease, and her father is a recovering alcoholic with lasting medical issues.
For two years, King has been taking her parents for doctor visits, filling out health care applications and paperwork, managing her family’s finances and more — all while holding on to a full-time job.
She founded tech.ur.elders to help caregivers find tech solutions that can make daily tasks easier and lessen the burden of responsibility. The site sets up users with services and products, such as apps for financial planning, in-home movement sensors to detect falls and end-of-life planning tools.
The experience of caring for her parents has been a major challenge, both emotionally and financially. Approximately 75 percent of caregivers are women, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance, and single women providing care for elderly parents are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than non-caregivers.
King set out to make solutions for all the people who related to her situation, and she designs with them — and with her parents — in mind.
“I’m worried about how some marginalized groups will be targeted as they age,” she told HuffPost. “I was one of few women of color in the room, building innovation, and that bothered me, because our elders are diverse, so if there are only white men building solutions for our elders — it’s a problem, because they might only have one set of elders in mind. My dad deserves an ample amount of solutions.”
Of course, without money and resources, it’s hard to fill the diversity gap in tech entrepreneurship.
“I have met so many amazing Black founders during this journey, and just to hear their experience and trying to get access to resources.” King said. “We’re going in the right direction, but it’s still not enough.”