I am the 2%
It is often difficult to express the feelings of discouragement, detachment, isolation, and self-doubt that come with being the anomaly of the tech industry. After a career of 4+ years at giant Silicon Valley tech companies, where racial diversity amongst my colleagues is – ahem – nil, I believe it is the appropriate time to speak out about the dangers and the reality of stereotype threat.
Examine the chart above.
For every 100 Googlers, 30 are women. 2 are black.
Yawn. Those numbers are starting to sound familiar (sorry, but I am looking at you, Yahoo and Apple and Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter). The numbers don’t sound promising for someone who looks like me. Google and others humbly published their diversity statistics, but those big data reveals – supporting empirical evidence that had already been identified – only reintroduced an unwelcome wave of the stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. (source)
Diversity data from technology companies puts people, particularly minorities, at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about themselves. Are no black people at Google because blacks do not belong there? Are men, in fact, superior to women when it comes to making a successful career in technology? While these questions may sound absurd, I admit they are questions I have asked myself. Am I really supposed to be here? The numbers say I shouldn’t. And numbers don’t lie.
I almost gave up on a career in technology. Fresh out of college, I was eager to take on Silicon Valley with the smarts and energy I had to thrive as a programmer. But quick glances around the office soon turned eagerness into despair, as I received a daily reminder that nobody looked like me. I cannot fully express what this feels like, but suffice it to say that this reality compounded thoughts of doubt and criticism in an industry already saturated with self-declared impostors.
Eventually, those negative thoughts prevailed and the stereotype threat was no longer a threat – it was the reality to which I had succumbed. I began to shy away from a world in which I felt I did not belong, trading programming for more appropriate roles, like developer relations and quality assurance. Leave the programming to the brogrammers; I was throwing in the towel.
A Dose of Perspective
With an exit strategy mapped out, I was ready to discover where I could fit into the world of technology without having to deal with the culture shock. But part of me realized I was giving up on something I knew I could master. I was forfeiting the chance to build, the opportunity to solve problems for the people who do look like me and even the ones who don’t. I was abandoning programming, not because it was too challenging or lack of passion – instead, I was playing victim to the stereotype threat that there was no place for someone like me. My race and gender made me feel inadequate in the tech arena, and I was using these feelings to perpetuate the message that I was simply not good enough.
Then it hit me…I was offsetting responsibility for my own life and learning.
I was the one preaching about my inadequacies. I was the poor victim believing these conjectures to be true. It was me who chose to believe that because I am a black female, I should find a place more accepting, more inviting, more comfortable than the world of brogrammers. Why was I the one feeding myself these lies?
When one’s stereotyped group status is made relevant or conspicuous by situational features, stereotype threat and performance decrements are more likely. (source)
I had consumed my environment as unwelcoming because I was most concerned about the relevance of my racial identity when I should have been focused on learning and growth. I should have soaked up the knowledge of my peers, regardless of their race or gender and how either compared to mine. I should have looked at those Google diversity numbers and thought, “Hello, opportunity.” Hindsight is 20/20, but I slowly began to understand that I had fallen prey to a stereotype threat that was more imagined than real. And I was the only one holding me back.
Don’t call it a comeback
Two months ago, I made the decision to jump back into the programming ring. I am learning web development for 9 weeks at Dev Bootcamp in San Francisco, CA. It will provide the leverage for me to hit the ground running with programming once again, with the same energy and vigor that I had after college. It will also give me the opportunity to teach and mentor young black women who may find themselves asking, “Is this really for me?” when another tech company releases diversity data.
If you enjoy programming, yes it is for you. Don’t accept stereotypes, and scoff at the data. I proudly wear the badge of the next black female programmer.