In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, The Plug, a media and research company focused on the Black tech ecosystem, found that some 200 tech companies promised to make greater efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. There have been modest gains—Google’s most recent diversity report shows that 5.3 percent of its workforce are now Black and 6.9 percent Latinx—but Kaplan says the figures tech companies offer to measure diversity can make it hard to truly know whether substantial change is being made.
For instance, figures released by Amazon reveal that the most diverse level of the company is also the lowest, categorized as “field and customer support.” “All of [Amazon’s] diversity is in their warehouse operations,” Kaplan says. “Companies that have big cafeterias and things like that often are counting their cafeteria staff, and [those jobs] would be more likely to be populated by underrepresented minorities or people from lower socioeconomic groups.”
Certain departments at tech companies outside engineering, such as business development, customer success, communications, and marketing, also tend to be more heavily stacked with women and historically underrepresented ethnic minorities. Brown says these types of roles have garnered increasing respect and prominence in recent years. But Mimi Fox Melton, CEO at Code 2040, a nonprofit that helps early career Black and Latinx technologists advance in the industry, says individuals in these roles are still more likely to face layoffs because they are seen as less essential to the business than those who develop or maintain the product.
“Most of the time, you see BIPOC candidates being hired into the HR and recruitment space,” says Fox Melton. “But in a hiring freeze, you don’t need as many people recruiting candidates, so those people will face layoffs.”
Kaplan also told WIRED that managers often don’t take into account how processes used to identify workers or roles to eliminate may be biased against certain demographics. “Even systems that are designed to be neutral end up disadvantaging women and people of color,” she says. Research has shown that in performance reviews, women and especially people of color are often rated lower for similar performance than their colleagues, making them appear to contribute less than they really do. Choosing to lay off newer employees and protect those who have demonstrated loyalty by staying at the company for several years might sound reasonable in theory, but in practice Kaplan says this method would put people hired as part of more recent pushes for diversity on the chopping block.
“In their early growth stages, most companies hire by referral,” says Fox Melton. “We know that 75 percent of white people have all-white networks, meaning that companies are more likely to be hiring more and more white people early on.”
Tech companies’ efforts to bring workers back to their luxe offices may also end up reducing workforce diversity. The remote work revolution prompted by the pandemic helped companies seeking to bring in employees from underrepresented backgrounds, says Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Meta’s most recent diversity report acknowledged remote work as a key factor in bringing in a more diverse pool of talent.