The Color Of Our Future: Summary of Conversation Three, Black Women in the Technology Workforce

In February and March 2020, NCWIT hosted a three-part series of online panel discussions called “The Color of Our Future: An Online Conversation Series on the Empowerment and Inclusion of Black Women & Girls in Tech.” Timed to coincide with both Black History Month and Women’s History Month, the series celebrated Black women and girls’ contributions to the computing field while also exploring the barriers and challenges that still exist. This online conversation series is part of the broader NCWIT effort, The Color of Our Future, a thematic strategy that anchors NCWIT programs, initiatives, and research-based resources that take an intersectional approach to broadening the meaningful participation of underrepresented women and girls of color (Black, Latinx, and Native American) to positively impact the future of computing.

The series brought together experts from a wide range of backgrounds for conversations about the experiences of Black girls in tech in the K-12 space, Black women in post-secondary computing education, and Black women in the workforce. Below is a summary of key takeaways from Conversation #3: Black Women in the Technology Workforce. The slide decks for all three presentations can be found here.

Summary of Conversation #3: Black Women in the Technology Workforce

In 2017, Black women made up just three percent of the computing workforce (Employed and experienced unemployed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, unpublished table, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). Despite being underrepresented in the tech field, however, Black women have also made – and are continuing to make – major contributions to the evolution of computing. The third installment of The Color of Our Future had the goal of empowering and celebrating the contributions of Black women and girls in computing, while also looking at ways that tech companies can be more inclusive of Black women and other underrepresented groups.

Panelists for this conversation included Entrepreneur and Drexel University Undergraduate Computer Information Systems Blessing Adogame; Executive Coach and NCWIT Corporate Initiatives Consultant Andrea Bowens-Jones; Google Computer Science & Digital Skills Education Program and Partnerships Manager Yvonne Melton; and Technology Concepts Group International President and CEO Avis Yates Rivers. As in previous installments, it was emphasized that efforts to support and include Black women in the tech workforce must take into account the specific barriers that exist in each context.

Representation still matters. 

All of the panelists agreed that the lack of mainstream cultural representations of Black women professionals in tech fields hindered Black women’s full participation in computing, from elementary school all the way up through the highest levels of corporate management. From deciding to pursue a new interest in computing to persevering in the face of microaggressions, bias, and systemic obstacles, representation matters. As Andrea Bowens-Jones explained, “There are no examples on TV that show [Black girls] that they can be that, there are no examples in their families that show them that it is possible because it’s somebody I know personally that has done it, and so when you even get to the school and making the choice, not having exposure or even awareness of the opportunity that is there, that’s still, to me, a barrier for students to even enter into the field.” This effect continues into the workforce, she said: “The feeling that, when you’re the only one, it is hard to blend in… so [you’re] working twice as hard, or feeling like you have to work twice as hard” to counter colleagues’ expectations that Black women need “special treatment” to be successful.
On the other hand, the presence of diverse role models can be a key factor in Black women’s persistence in computing. As Blessing Adogame shares, “I was always interested in technology, I just didn’t know how I would get there… It wasn’t until I came to Drexel and I saw one Black female student who was a software engineering major, and that’s actually why I switched my major to that after computer science.” Later, she met “another Black female student who was an information systems major and she was more interested in cybersecurity, so I was able to talk to her, and from there I switched my major to Information Systems.”

Mentorship and sponsorship programs are needed to foster success in the tech workplace.

Andrea Bowens-Jones urged companies to “really organize mentoring programs,” because “a lot of times what’s lacking is real advocacy for women to be supported or advanced in the workplace.” The most effective advocates in her career journey, she said, are “not just someone that looks like me, but the kind of mentors that are in rooms that I wasn’t in so they could be advocates for me.” Avis Yates Rivers also asserted that majority-group allies are necessary for accomplishing inclusion goals, noting that more research could be done “on what makes a man become a strong ally for all women and in particular black women; and how can we identify and find those men and then continue to replicate them?”
Yvonne Melton pointed out that professional organizations can also be an excellent place for Black women to build networks and connect with mentors. Such organizations can support Black women and other underrepresented groups through targeted outreach and recruitment efforts. 

Educate corporate leaders about why a diverse workforce benefits everyone. 

Inclusion efforts must be supported by the top levels of an organization if they are to be effective. As Blessing Adogame shares, “I have entered in a lot of different companies who have claimed to have a Diversity and Inclusion [program], and once I would enter the company I would ask… where is everything happening, because I see it on an external level, but inside there’s nothing there, there is no support for me.”
Multiple panelists described interactions with male colleagues who felt they were being asked to give up their job in the name of diversity. As Andrea Bowens-Jones noted, part of the work that’s needed is around “getting people to understand it’s not about me giving up my seat, but me creating room for you to have a seat at the table.” Avis Yates Rivers concurred, adding that organizations are being urged “to change their culture and their processes and their thinking because it would benefit everybody, not just women… if your culture is more inclusive and it’s listening and valuing everyone’s contribution, that’s also going to value men’s contributions as well,” while ensuring that innovative ideas are not going unheard due to lack of representation.
This on-demand NCWIT webinar, Ten Actionable Steps To Increasing Diverse Participation, offers more research-backed strategies that both individuals and companies can take to better recruit and retain a diverse range of employees in the tech workforce.

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