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The Challenges for Women of Color in Tech

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If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or anywhere on earth for that matter, you’re no doubt privy to the ongoing and all too urgent conversations surrounding diversity in tech — or more specifically, the egregious lack thereof. Numerous thought pieces and editorials have emerged to address tech companies’ struggle with implementing substantial diversity programs to attract top talent among women and people of color in the tech space — from commentary offered by business analysts (and even President Obama), to insights from leaders in the industry who continue to challenge the status quo when it comes to recruiting and hiring practices at some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies.

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And yet, people of color (i.e., anyone who identifies as non-white) and women continue to make tremendous inroads in tech. Women of color, in particular, are leading the pack when it comes to successfully navigating the white male-dominated tech industry, ascending the corporate ladder to occupy the C-Suite (like TaskRabbit COO, Stacy Brown-Philpot) and leading their own innovative start-ups (see NewMe Accelerator founder, Angela Benton). While the number of women in color working in tech is still abysmally low (according to the AAUW, in 2011 white women made up 17% of the industry, with black women and Hispanic women coming in at 3% and 1%, respectively; Asian women fared slightly better at 4%, but Native American women accounted for only .1% of all women in tech), their presence, influence, and impact is undeniable.

Succeeding as a woman of color in tech is no small feat. Arisha Smith, founding principal of Idyllic Interactive, a digital marketing agency based in Dallas, TX, shared her experience throughout her career. “Being a woman of color in tech ends up being a lot of fun, but it’s always an uphill battle. It’s almost like ‘hazing’ or jumping in; until people see what you’re made of, they’re going to try you.” Smith intimated that the pressures can be even more significant for women of color coders and developers, compared to what she and others working between marketing and business development in the space.

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Arisha Smith, founding principal of Idyllic Interactive

As for confronting issues with diversity, Smith contends that most tech companies have decent, relatively effective recruitment programs in place; the real challenge, she said, is with retention. “Companies do a good job recruiting, but are not so great with retaining because the culture doesn’t change. Women of color are often underpaid and under-titled, which eventually causes them to leave these companies.” This sentiment is echoed in numerous observations about hiring trends in general and in tech hiring in particular, as the practice of “hiring for cultural fit” is suspected of being a way some companies may seek to disqualify otherwise ideal candidates of color. Even when that is not the case, people of color and women frequently report corporate cultures that repeatedly fail to take their unique perspectives into account.

At the end of the day, though, women of color in tech show no signs of backing down, despite the challenges they are up against. Smith said her experience has been “joyful,” as she has had the opportunity to work with engineers, marketers, coders, and founders, and to parlay her exceptional skills and business acumen into lucrative entrepreneurial endeavors.

Kiran Gandhi, aka Madame Gandhi, aka “the London Marathon free-bleeder,” coined the phrase, “The future is female.” To take it a step further, “the future of tech is women of color.” They’re truly the real MVPs.

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Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an Oakland-based soul singer/songwriter and freelance music journalist. Check out her music and culture blog, BohemeRockstar, at RhondaNicole.com, and followe her on Twitter @WildHoneyRock.