Tabitha Myers and Derek Harju

Tabitha Myers and Derek Harju work near each other at Co+Hoots, a collaborative working space in central Phoenix that strives to be a workspace with a balanced gender ratio and people from diverse backgrounds. 

Melissa Ortiz, a freelance software developer, encounters a lot of situations that make her feel uneasy. Ortiz has become hyper-aware her chosen industry largely excludes people who look like her.

First, there was the biweekly meetup with 20 people – only three others were women, and she was the only Hispanic in the room. As a self-taught newbie in the tech game, Ortiz was already nervous about joining a group of experienced colleagues. The gender gap and lack of racial and ethnic diversity, she said, amplifies her anxiety.

“The white women were friendly, but I never actually felt like I belonged there,” said Ortiz, 30. “I felt so judged when they found out I was a mom to three kids. Because I was a young mother with multiple kids, it was like confirmation bias of me being a young, dumb Mexican girl who has a lot of kids and stays home and does nothing with her life. When I told them, there were gasps and ‘Wows,’ and someone actually said, ‘I could never have that many kids and be able to do anything else.’”

The tech industry is growing in Arizona and nationally, with net employment in 2018 bringing on more than 260,000 new jobs nationally. Since the employment shortage following the Great Recession a decade ago, net tech employment increased by an estimated 1.9 million jobs. Yet, as the industry is growing, it’s leaving people of color and women behind.

Google, Microsoft and other tech giants have a well-documented record of what could be called an inclusion-exclusion. 

Google released its annual diversity report this year, showing nearly 50% of its employees are white, with less than 7% identifying as Hispanic. 

Microsoft shared similar data from its 2018 diversity report showing 55% white employees and 6% Hispanic employees.

The divide can lead to minority workers and women in tech feeling ignored, and hinder career advancement. For millions of customers, the dearth can affect how they experience a world becoming ever more reliant on technology.

Several Arizona organizations have homed in on the practice of excluding people of color in the development of new technologies. Start Up Unidos, founded by Stephanie Bermudez, works to foster binational entrepreneurship in the Arizona-Sonora area and increase diversity within the tech industry by doing so. 

Co+Hoots, founded by Jenny Poon, recruits diverse entrepreneurs, within the tech industry and otherwise, to foster the creation of new businesses led by women and people of color. Iconico, founded by Luis Avila, works with organizations to build community engagement campaigns around the idea of fostering diversity and innovation.

Avila said the lack of diversity leads to a disconnect between technology and people of color.

“The people developing technology are predominantly men, predominantly white and predominantly straight, so the creation of new technologies are informed by their experiences and not the communities most affected by the technology,” Avila said.


A push for diversity

Census reports show more than 30% of Arizona’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Arizona is ranked third in the nation for net tech employment growth in 2017 and 2018. With Arizona tech on the rise, members of the tech community believe the industry needs to do more to include new groups of people on the local level.

Oriz said the uneven playing field makes it difficult for people of color and women to enter the industry.

“It’s really intimidating to go into these groups,” she said. “They’re so confident and assertive, and I didn’t feel like I was able to ask the appropriate questions to further my career. It’s a really big set back.”

Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft and Apple have the largest market values of any companies in the world. Collectively, the five companies are worth more than the total economy of the United Kingdom, according to the Associated Press. Yet nationally, Latinos make up less than 8% of the U.S. high tech workforce compared to the nearly 70% of the tech workforce comprised of whites workers.

Latinos made up 18% of the U.S. population in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, a number that’s only expected to increase over the coming decades.

“We shouldn’t be thinking ‘Latino-anything’ without the context the success of this community is the success of this country,” Avila said. “We are in huge need of people thinking of us as a part of this society, because we are.”