Dec 3, 2020 - Technology

Tech's race problem is all about power

Illustration of a glowing power button casting a glowing light on a Black person

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As problematic as the tech industry's diversity statistics are, activists say the focus on those numbers overlooks a more fundamental problem — one less about numbers than about power.

What they're saying: In tech, they argue, decision-making power remains largely concentrated in the hands of white men. The result is an industry whose products and working conditions belie the industry rhetoric about changing the world for the better.

Why it matters: In this view, unless the tech industry finds a way to reform its power discrepancies, its fundamental inequalities won't change, even if the industry manages to improve its poor track record on diversity.

  • Too often, experts say, workers from underrepresented groups, regardless of their numbers, aren't in positions to effect real change at tech companies and face enormous structural barriers in trying to rise to the upper ranks.

It's not enough to just "have the right people in the room," says Color of Change head Rashad Robinson. A "rainbow oligarchy" is still an oligarchy, he adds.

  • "If we end up with diversity for diversity's sake, that doesn't actually change the nuances, the structures, the contours, and in particular, the rules," Robinson said in a recent panel I moderated.

Between the lines: The power dynamics play out in a variety of different ways, from questions over worker pay and promotions to problems with products that exacerbate inequality or lead to harassment.

On the pay front, there have been a slew of complaints by women and people of color that they were paid less or denied promotions offered to white male counterparts.

  • "That's generational wealth we are essentially being cheated out of," says Ifeoma Ozoma, who left Pinterest earlier this year and settled claims she was underpaid for her work.

The industry's power imbalance also contributes to failures involving products and services that end up marginalizing non-white users or promoting hate speech.

  • Even when there are one or two people from underrepresented groups in the room, they often lack the authority to have an impact.

"Representation is not enough and is easily tokenized," says Aerica Shimizu Banks, who also left Pinterest earlier this year, claiming discrimination. "It’s not like you have the presence of one person from a different background or gender and you have equality. They must have the ability to meaningfully make an impact and contribute."

Of note: To win power, of course, people of color and other underrepresented groups first need to get inside the companies — and right now most of the industry has failed to improve its poor record.

  • Despite bold pronouncements, sometimes accompanied by large investments, the major tech companies have barely made a dent in the underrepresentation of Blacks and Latino employees.
  • Ozoma said the tech industry isn't alone in these problems, but deserves added scrutiny both because of the influence its products have on society and because the industry holds itself up as a meritocracy.

Two companies' recent records illustrate the depth of the industry's troubles.

At Pinterest, racial issues came to the forefront after Ozoma and Shimizu Banks left the company in May.

  • Then, former COO Francoise Brougher said in an August blog post that she was forced out of her job for calling out the "rampant discrimination, hostile work environment, and misogyny that permeates Pinterest." An employee walkout followed.
  • This week, a shareholder class-action suit was filed, alleging that Pinterest had created a toxic environment, hurting the company's reputation and causing financial harm.

At Coinbase, Black employees, after leveling a number of complaints about the cryptocurrency company in recent years, have left in droves, according to a New York Times story.

  • Coinbase is the same company that earlier this year announced it would shun politics as much as it could by avoiding taking stands on issues and by discouraging political talk at the office.
  • That move came after Black employees criticized CEO Brian Armstrong for not speaking out publicly about the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • It's also worth noting that Armstrong is still speaking out on issues important to him and the business, such as how cryptocurrencies are regulated. "What he did was incredibly political — it was just his politics," Ozoma notes.

The problems at Pinterest and Coinbase are just examples of a broader industry-wide failure.

  • Many of the largest names in tech have faced allegations of harassment and discrimination as well in recent years.
  • "You could go to any company in Silicon Valley and find this," Shimizu Banks said.
  • Often these conflicts are settled in ways that hide them from public view — although, in a measure of progress, some large companies have stopped making employees sign non-disclosure agreements in such cases.
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