Black History Month and Tech: Honoring Past Contributions and Pushing for Increased Diversity

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In December of last year, the film Hidden Figures depicted the efforts of three female African American mathematicians working in NASA during the 1960s space race. The film went on to garner numerous awards but more importantly sparked a larger discussion -- many viewers had no idea how critical these women as well as other African Americans were to NASA’s success.

Sadly, African Americans’ contributions in the technology sector have largely gone overlooked throughout history. At the same time, black Americans are still underrepresented in this field despite their significant contributions. Black History Month offers us a time to celebrate these ‘hidden figures’ while recognizing the ongoing efforts to increase African American and other minority representation in the technology industry.

When you think of famous Americans in the tech industry, past and present names that dominate the national conversation include Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, while African Americans are rarely mentioned. Nevertheless, black innovators have made significant contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Historical icons such as George Washington Carver, and Elijah McCoy, and Lewis Lattimer paved the way for American ingenuity with their industry-changing inventions. Lesser known African Americans have also made significant contributions to the tech industry. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson’s (the mathematicians portrayed in Hidden Figures) technical work at NASA was critical to the agency’s success in winning the space race. Other unsung black leaders in tech include Frank Greene, who developed high speed computer systems in the 1960s, Mae Jamison, who was the first African-American woman to travel in space, and James West who invented the first electret microphone. The list of contributions goes on as more black leaders in tech continue to emerge today.

Despite the number of significant African American contributions to various fields in science and tech, there is still a glaring lack of diversity in the tech industry. Black Americans along with Latinos and Native Americans are underrepresented in the tech industry by 16 to 18 percentage points compared to their overall presence in the U.S. labor force. Further, a recent report by Open Mic showed that African Americans only make up 5.3 percent of the tech workforce. Recent data also reveals that the top tech companies are all overwhelmingly white. While some have called to increase the talent pipeline as a way to improve racial diversity, blacks and Latinos earn 18 percent of computer science degrees despite making up a disproportionate amount of the tech workforce. This data indicates that black Americans and other underrepresented minorities are ready, willing, and able to receive more opportunities in the tech sector.            

The glaring lack of diversity has garnered the attention of both policy makers and leaders in the industry. The Congressional Black Caucus launched an initiative last year to increase the representation of African American talent in tech companies and major tech companies have signed a pledge to increase diversity in their workforce. Current African American leaders in tech are also doing their part to increase diversity by creating their own programs targeted towards minority communities. From a policy angle, Public Knowledge continues to advocate for increased diversity by supporting policies that promote an open internet as a way of generating diverse voices that are often left out by content gatekeepers. Overall, increasing diversity in the tech sector will require participation from a variety of stakeholders as well as policies that encourage diverse hiring practices.

As Black History Month comes to an end, it’s an important time to remember how far we’ve come but also acknowledge there is still much work to do in increasing African American and other minority representation in all facets of the technology industry. 

Image credit: Flickr user Enokson

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