SF Chronicle: Women and people of color in California are getting laid off. Let them back in the door

May 29, 2020

By Tanishia Williams 

I’ve spent most of my career being the only black woman in the room. Based on my background, statistics would tell you that the odds of finding myself where I am today — a technology expert advising some of America’s most valuable companies — were extremely low. I ran away from home when I was 16 years old, got my GED, and went straight into the workforce. I eventually made the choice to go back to college while working, and kept steadily moving upward. Along the way, I learned that tricks like changing my name on my resume from “Tanishia” to “Toni” was all it took to get a callback. There’s a whole body of research that validates this experience.

By now, so much ink has been spilled over trends that continue to show white and male employees dominating Silicon Valley workforces, especially among the STEM teams building the technologies that are changing our world. A 2016 analysis of the 177 largest San Francisco Bay Area tech firms found that 10 companies didn’t employ a single black woman. Three companies had no black employees at all. Six companies didn’t have any female executives. In the five years since Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft began disclosing workforce demographics, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have barely increased their share of black U.S. technical employees. Apple’s black technical workforce remains unchanged. Meanwhile, it’s a mixed bag for women, with better numbers overall but nowhere near parity.

Now, I’m looking at more than 4 million newly-unemployed Californians and the data already indicate that, as is common in economic downturns, they are disproportionately women and people of color. In April, the unemployment rate for women soared to 16.2% compared to 13.5% for men. And for minority groups, that percentage spikes even higher. While I fear that this trend is set to continue, we don’t have to sit on our hands.

First, let’s examine how massive unemployment is leading to more competition for every job opening. The surge in applicants, combined with stay-at-home orders, likely will result in employers relying on digital tools to evaluate and hire candidates. Many of them are turning to the artificial intelligence and algorithm-based hiring innovations that have cropped up in recent years. As someone who knows how to look under the hood and understand what’s been built ethically and what hasn’t, I can tell you many of these tools haven’t. Just take the notorious Amazon AI recruiting tool that rejected women’s resumes for engineering roles. I also have serious questions about technologies that rely on facial recognition, which have a history of bias against women and people of color.

It’s certainly problematic that many of these hiring tools are being built by non-diverse teams and deployed without being audited for bias first. It’s an even bigger problem that there are no statutes, regulations, or even guidelines to prevent our marginalized populations from being further disenfranchised when employers deploy them. To put a fine point on it: It’s perfectly legal for employers to use any hiring method they want, even one that is discriminatory, so long as they can show it is “job related.”

When you layer in this handicap, on top of the usual referral programs and network connections that prioritize the most privileged among us, the odds of getting the job are longer and longer for the very populations that are suffering the most in this economic downturn. I’ve personally learned of at least one top technology company that told its workforce it would give preferential treatment to newly unemployed family members of employees through a special hiring program.

Through my work with the community and mentorship organization Blacks In Technology, I have joined the Fair Hiring for California coalition. This large and diverse grassroots effort is calling on California to lead the nation in setting standards for AI and algorithm-based tools in the hiring process. We are advocating for these tools to be pre-tested for bias, and audited on an annual basis to ensure there is no adverse impact. This is so much easier to do with technology at scale than it is with human decision-makers. It’s also more important than ever as we look toward an eventual economic recovery.

Tanishia Williams is the San Francisco Bay Area organizer for Blacks In Technology, a global community and mentorship platform.

See full op-ed here.