Technology industry still faces uphill battle with diversity

Lisette Oler

In the Spredfast office, employees work diligently at their desks, coding for their clients. At his desk, UT alumnus Al Hughes looks around — he is the only black person in the office. This is the norm.

Hughes is a creative technologist for Spredfast, a social marketing firm in downtown Austin. Hughes said not seeing people of his same race around him at work is the biggest challenge he faces in the industry. To Hughes, the lack of diversity actually means a lack of diverse thinking. 

“I’ve always said lack of diversity is a business problem, it’s not really an ethical problem,” Hughes said. “People [who] invest in diversity [will] succeed more in the long run, simply because the more diverse you are as a business, the better you are as a business.”

On Thursday, the Herb Kelleher Institute will hold the Diversity in the Startup & Tech Industry Summit to discuss how to increase the numbers of women, LGBT people, people of color and veterans and change current demographics of the industry. The summit is being held at 3 p.m. at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. 

This summit comes at a time when diversity in the technology industry is a widely known problem. Businesses are faced with the looming question of how to increase the numbers of minorities in the “high tech” industry, which includes companies who hire large numbers of STEM employees and focus on producing innovative products and processes.

According to a report published by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May, black workers in the “high tech” industry totaled 7.4 percent while the white population composed 68.53 percent of the total workforce in the same industry; in the private sector, black workers make up 14.38 percent of the total workforce. 

Though women comprise 35.86 percent of the “high tech” workforce, they’re still underrepresented. Vicky Li, a UT alumna, now works in the technology industry and said the lack of diversity she saw in her undergraduate program is visible in her current workplace as well.

“It goes hand in hand,” Li said. “If you don’t have that many women starting off in computer science or MIS or any kind of tech involved major, you’re not going to have that many women in the industry either. The [industry] is very technical and you need to know what you’re doing. It’s not easy to come out of nowhere and not have a background in coding.”

Li said the low numbers of women in the field come from lack of exposure from an early age. When she was younger, she didn’t use a computer unless it was to check her email, whereas boys her age were exposed to video games and other forms of programming more often. 

UT’s Department of Computer Science is working to increase women’s representation with their program, First Bytes, a summer camp just for high school girls. The camp is meant to introduce girls to the field of programming through coding projects, taking field trips to local tech companies and working with UT professors. 

Tiffany Buckley, the associate director for academics, said programs such as the summer camp highlight the exciting parts of computer science for girls. She said this will help the technology industry combat underrepresentation in the long run.

“A lot of them come from high schools where there were only a few women interested in computer science, so getting to meet a bunch of other girls who are also interested in it is encouraging and inspiring,” Buckley said. “It opens the girls’ eyes to all the cool things you can actually do with computer science degree.”