Tech Companies Face Bias Issues

The stereotype of high-tech companies is that they're filled with young, white male employees.

The stereotype of high-tech companies is that theyre filled with young, white male employees. In fact, thats been largely true — and even if no blatant discrimination exists against women or minorities in a company, high-tech businesses often have difficulty avoiding the appearance of discrimination, since their available labor pool tends to be more white and male than almost any other industry.

"As part of the engineering community at Xerox, I was often the only female sitting at the table, much less the only black female," says Nina Smith, who recently left Xerox after 20 years to become the chief marketing officer at WebTrends.

Smith is careful to say that she had a wonderful career at Xerox, a company she says that "believed in and promoted for diversity, and even made that part of the manager review process."

Nevertheless, several large tech companies have been hit with discrimination complaints this year — including Xerox. Eighteen former and current sales representatives for Xerox last month filed racial discrimination complaints against the company, and at least one other similar case involving Xerox is pending. In January, Microsoft was hit with a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against seven current and former black employees and asking for $5 billion in damages. Microsoft is defending itself against the litigation, and both Microsoft and Xerox say they do not tolerate discrimination in their employment practices.

Now technology companies are beginning to see the value of a diverse work force, says Chris Metzler, a senior vice president at Scendis, a consulting firm in Vienna, Va. "Last year, many clients called us after a lawsuit," he says. "This year, theyre calling before the lawsuits."

Metzler, an expert in discrimination law, says bluntly that "many high-tech companies just dont get it. Lots of start-ups see laws and regulations as distractions rather than as [something] important to their business."

A fundamental flaw of many high-tech businesses, Metzler says, is their constant search for a quick fix: "High-tech clients want to solve discrimination issues in real-time. Give me software and some training on the Net, they say, and let me go back to work."

Norman Fortenberry, acting division director of human resource development at the National Science Foundation, knows the problem will take years to fix. The National Action Council on Minorities found that while minority students may aspire to high-tech careers, few were aware that it required math and science knowledge, or they didnt take proper math or science classes.

"Were dealing with systemic and societywide issues that require collaboration across a broad array of sectors," Fortenberry says.

The NSF offers a variety of programs to develop a more diverse labor pool by addressing the "pipeline" issue, including the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program, named after a former congressman, which works with organizations to help college graduates in science, math, engineering and technology. In 1999, 20,000 minorities received bachelors degrees in those areas through the Stokes program.

The high-tech industrys exclusion of women and minorities should be put into context of the diversity problems of corporate America in general. For example, only 50 of the Fortune 500 companies have 25 percent or more of their corporate officer positions held by women, according to Catalyst, a womens business advocacy organization. Worse, 90 of the Fortune 500 companies have no female officers, barely better than 1995, when 115 companies lacked even one female officer.

Metzler feels high-tech companies have an excellent opportunity to become models of inclusion. "These companies have creativity, see things at different levels that older companies dont, and have flexibility," he says. In other words, theyre young and can grow — and can learn from past mistakes.