While the number and variety of tech jobs have grown steadily over two decades, the technology workforce has not evolved to reflect the makeup of the American workforce. Organizations have worked to improve representation among Black employees and executives in technology-related jobs across industries, but there is more work to be done.
The Black technology workforce
Black people make up 12 percent of the US workforce but only 8 percent of employees in tech jobs.1 That percentage is even smaller further up the corporate ladder; just 3 percent of technology executives in the C-suite are Black, according to a McKinsey analysis of Fortune 500 executives.2 That gap is likely to widen over the next decade. Across all industries, technology jobs—those in data science, engineering, cybersecurity, and software development—are expected to grow 14 percent by 2032. Black tech talent in those roles is expected to grow only 8 percent over the same period (Exhibit 1).
Developing inclusive technologies and bridging a gap worth billions
Black households stand to lose out on more than a cumulative $350 billion in tech job wages by 2030, an amount equal to one-tenth the total wealth held by those households, according to a McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility analysis.
The wage gap in tech roles is expected to grow nearly 37 percent, from $37.5 billion in 2023 to $51.3 billion in annual lost wages by 2030, according to our analysis (Exhibit 2).
Increasing Black representation in technology jobs isn’t just about bridging wage gaps. It means improving the lives of those who are regularly othered, diminished, and discounted in workplaces where they may be the only Black person. It’s also about developing inclusive technologies that have transformative potential for Black communities. For example, digital banking platforms designed to be inclusive of Black consumers provide financial services that can improve the living standards in communities underserved by traditional banks.
Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and public-sector agencies must take coordinated action to increase Black representation in tech jobs. Specifically, they should reexamine their approach at five critical junctures throughout the career journey for Black tech talent, by improving STEM education at the K–12 level, strengthening HBCU partnerships, expanding opportunities for alternatively skilled talent, replacing mentorship with sponsorship, and empowering Black leaders to thrive. Doing so will support the Black technology workforce for generations to come.
Meet STEM students where they are
Education programs focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in K–12 schools have long been seen as potential feeders into the technology workforce. Programs focused on helping subsets of students began to proliferate from both the public sector and nonprofits in the 2010s; Girls Who Code and NASA’s Next Gen STEM are just two examples.
Such programs are a promising start, but there’s a lot of opportunity to do more. According to the Pew Research Center, Black students earned only 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2018, compared with 10 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.3 The COVID-19 pandemic may have further shrunk the pipeline: Black and Hispanic students experienced sharper declines in fourth-grade math test scores during the pandemic compared with their White and Asian peers, wiping out decades of progress.4 Without intervention, it’s possible the lagging test scores will lead to a decrease in the number of Black students who eventually pursue STEM careers.
While much of the nonprofit sector’s work has increased diversity in STEM, there could be more targeted efforts from businesses specifically designed to encourage Black student participation. Only 20 percent of Fortune 100 companies have a K–12 STEM partnership focused on students in underserved communities, according to a McKinsey analysis.
Businesses can meet students where they are by underwriting technology courses or offering information sessions in predominantly Black communities. Numerous studies have documented the positive effect that a sense of belonging in education has on academic retention: K–12 students and first-year college students who feel a sense of belonging among their peers are likelier to participate in classroom discussions, believe they will succeed in a subject area, and are more motivated.5 STEM programs that target schools with a high population of Black students are likely to help plug future talent gaps in tech.
A Pew Research survey published in April 2022 found that the percentage of Black adults who say “Black people have reached the highest levels of success” in a range of careers was highest for professional athletes and musicians, at more than double the rate of engineers and scientists, indicating that survey respondents don’t perceive STEM fields to be welcoming to Black talent (Exhibit 3). For students who may not have a role model in tech, community-focused approaches help increase exposure to both companies and role models.
Nonprofits have often led the charge in bringing greater STEM awareness to Black communities. One example is MITRE, an organization that provides tech expertise to the US government. MITRE gives its employees 40 paid hours of “civic duty” to participate in in-classroom and after-school programs at K–12 schools in Black and Hispanic communities; it also reimburses employees for expenses (like travel and parking) related to their participation in these programs. MITRE’s initiatives have exposed thousands of students and their parents to opportunities in STEM.
Even as companies encourage employees to participate in volunteer programs, they should be mindful to not add to Black employees’ workload or to make participation a requirement for promotion. They should encourage employees of all races—not just Black employees—to engage in racial-equity efforts.
Create stronger corporate HBCU partnerships
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are a significant driver of economic mobility for Black people and produce many of the country’s Black technologists. Companies have been working with HBCUs to provide resources and create a talent pipeline for STEM students for more than two decades. Boeing, IBM, and Netflix are just three of the many companies that have partnered with HBCUs.
Still, there’s room to improve the effectiveness of these partnerships.
The experience of one technology company might provide useful lessons. The company launched a lauded program that relied on volunteer employees to mentor HBCU students and teach courses but did not provide employees with incentives to participate. The program created internships for HBCU students, but there was no follow-through when the internships ended (and many of the HBCU interns did not go on to work at the company upon graduation). Also, the company partnered with only a small fraction of HBCUs across the country. Finally, while the company helped develop technology courses for HBCUs, it did not underwrite the costs of those programs or offer scholarships to students, some of whom took out additional student loans to participate in the program.
Organizations with money to invest in their future workforce can direct funds toward HBCU curriculum development, career offices, and faculty training. For instance, Harvard University runs a free data science pedagogy workshop for educators at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, to broaden the pipeline of future graduate students in the field. IBM is partnering with 13 HBCUs to build a new Quantum Center that gives students access to IBM quantum computers, as well as educational support and research opportunities. Ideally, businesses would be able to underwrite the cost of internships or related programs so that they are free or affordable for Black students.
Not all businesses will be able to afford national HBCU outreach or cost-subsidized internship programs, however. But even those with less cash on hand can better work with HBCUs and their students: those with internship programs can offer more professional development during internships to increase the chances a student is hired after graduation and expand partnerships beyond the universe of well-known HBCUs. They should also increase partnerships with non-HBCUs that have high Black and Hispanic student populations.
Expand opportunities for alternatively skilled talent
People without college degrees are likely to be overlooked by employers that still hire according to traditional standards. Of the 17 million Black workers in the United States, 65 percent developed their skills through alternative routes—meaning they have a high school diploma and may have military or workforce experience but do not have a bachelor’s degree.6 By this measure, jobs that require a bachelor’s degree are out of reach for most Black workers.
By removing the requirement for a bachelor’s degree, businesses immediately expand the applicant pool. Additionally, they can partner with platforms that help train “ready to learn” talent—people who have experience in other fields with transferable skills but may require additional development—to find qualified candidates with nontraditional backgrounds.
Some businesses are already investing in such programs. Nasdaq and Oracle partner with Kura Labs, an online academy that offers free training and job placement for engineers in underserved communities. The organization says its efforts have resulted in $12 million in new wages in less than 18 months. Meanwhile, other companies including Pandora and Twitch have partnered with the platform OnRamp Technology, which works with more than 100 boot camps, online communities, and education and training providers. Three out of four people hired through OnRamp are people of color.
But recruiting ready-to-learn talent helps improve representation only if a company also reexamines its interview processes. Résumés that indicate a candidate is Black—either because of the candidate’s name, school, or work history, for example—have been found to generate fewer interview requests than résumés reflecting characteristics of White candidates.7 In our survey of Black tech talent, respondents say their companies “do not do enough outreach” and “have not yet incorporated procedures like blind résumés” (stripping a résumé of any indicators of gender identity or race) to broaden talent pools (see sidebar, “About the research”).
Replace mentorship with sponsorship
Black tech professionals change companies every three and a half years on average, compared with every five or more years for their non-Black counterparts. This pattern continues over the course of a career: Black professionals with 21 years or more of tech experience have changed companies more than seven times on average, compared with six times for their non-Black peers.8 The higher attrition rate means Black talent is less likely to stay at a company long enough to be promoted.
In efforts to retain Black employees, some companies have created mentorship programs—but the programs aren’t always effective: across industries, only 13 percent of Black management-level employees and only 20 percent of Black entry-level employees strongly agree that their sponsors are effective at creating opportunities for them (Exhibit 4).
Mentorship programs may fail for a variety of reasons. A business may mandate mentor pairing for new hires, but often these relationships are transactional and lack the kind of connection that allows the relationship to last. (Employees who choose their mentees may do so according to familiar networks, like a shared school, or other factors that exclude Black employees.) Mentorship programs may also lack processes that guide mentors and mentees through the relationship and may only measure intangible or difficult-to-quantify metrics, like satisfaction in your mentor.
Ultimately, mentorship is not enough to keep Black tech employees from leaving companies. Sponsorship—the idea that senior leaders are tasked with creating apprenticeship and networking opportunities, as well as helping talent navigate transitions at work like a promotion—is more impactful. These relationships require both parties to create a development strategy with specific goals that are measurable.
Enabling Black leaders to thrive
When asked what they believe are the top three most important initiatives for advancing Black talent in tech, 83 percent of Black tech employees we surveyed said advancement opportunities were among the top three most important components of growth for Black tech talent, more than inclusion seminars or external advocacy and investment. More than a third said advancement opportunities were the most important factor. There are additional ways companies can support Black tech talent beyond advancement opportunities, particularly when it comes to fostering an inclusive workplace (Exhibit 5).
Even when Black employees in tech successfully complete corporate leadership and executive training programs, a promotion may remain elusive. This may happen for two reasons: an existing Black tech leader might be skilled in one area (for example, IT project management) but lack the skills required in another (for example, data science) to grow into a C-suite-level executive role. Upskilling these employees in tech’s fastest-growing areas is one way they can be supported.
Additionally, businesses that are too focused on training Black tech talent without adopting organizational change are setting those employees up for failure. Partnering with organizations that create leadership training programs for aspiring leaders as well as existing leaders creates two streams of parallel growth at a company. It’s also important that these organizations are specifically focused on elevating Black tech talent, as general executive leadership programs may overlook some of the nuances of the Black experience in technology that shape someone’s career journey.
The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), a charitable organization that counts Amazon Web Services and PepsiCo among its partners, serves as an example of how to do this successfully. ITSMF offers a leadership academy for future Black tech talent, in addition to a management academy tailored for existing executives. Businesses that partner with ITSMF also engage in unconscious bias or cultural intelligence workshops and cohost networking events for prospective executive talent. Up to 80 percent of ITSMF leadership academy graduates received promotions within 18 months of completing the program, according to the group.
Seizing these five opportunities—at the K–12 level, in higher education, with alternatively skilled talent, in sponsorship, and in leadership training—will help to close the Black tech talent gap. Many businesses today are undertaking resiliency measures to prepare for tough times ahead and help curb losses. It is during such times of economic uncertainty when it’s both easiest for businesses to cut critical investments in Black tech talent, and when it’s most important not to.