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Black and brown tech workers share their experiences of racism on the job

Black IT professionals
Clockwise from top left: Jordan Mann, Ifeoma Ozoma, Leslie Miley, Bari Williams and Aerica Banks, center.
(Minh Pham)
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A Black career IT professional put himself forward for a promotion but was instead asked to help recruit another candidate, who was white. A Black Google engineer was confronted by a white co-worker demanding to see his ID badge. A Latino project manager pointed out his quickly growing start-up was almost all white, and the chief executive responded by telling him to invite his friends to apply for jobs. A Black Air Force vet was offered positions at both Twitter and Snap, only to be set adrift both times when the recruiting programs that brought him there dissolved. A Black programmer on contract was denied a full-time job and asked to train her unqualified white replacement instead.

These are just some of the stories of discrimination against women, LGBTQ-identified people, and people of color that The Times has collected in a survey of 68 tech workers that began in the fall of 2019.

Public protests demanding justice for Black people killed by police have brought a reckoning to the business world, with executives forced to resign, companies overhauling internal policies and employees quitting in protest.

For the tech industry, this reckoning has been going on in some form since 2014. But while large tech and venture capital firms have promised to do better, little has changed in how Black people and other people of color are treated as job candidates, employees and investors.

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Some of the common experiences detailed in survey responses: enduring daily microaggressions; feeling targeted by superiors or external critics; being trotted out to defend a company’s diversity practices; being tasked with extra work typically reserved for diversity and inclusion officers. Respondents described companies where people of color are severely underrepresented in both rank-and-file and executive roles and corporate cultures that can feel hostile to anyone who is not a heterosexual, cisgender white male.

Of the 68 tech workers who responded to the survey, half said they felt tech was not inclusive to people from diverse backgrounds.

Tech companies are famous for moving fast. Yet despite calling diversity a priority since 2014, they remain mostly white and mostly male.

“Tech is inclusive because they need our talent and manpower regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not,” one Hulu employee who asked not to be named said. “It’s a spectrum of tolerance and acceptance.”

People whose identities are underrepresented in their field find themselves judged through a different set of lenses, one that ignores the question of privilege, the Hulu employee said. “A single mom that didn’t go to college is seen as uneducated whereas a white college dropout is seen as a ‘genius,’ as if he’s too good for college.”

Despite the hardships of navigating largely white, male spaces, fewer than a third of respondents said they’ve ever left a company in response to discrimination or non-inclusiveness. “When your position is this tenuous, you rarely leave since the next job is never sure to be there,” said one woman who works at an education-tech start-up and asked to be anonymous.

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These experiences mirror the results of a Pew Research study from early 2018, which found that more than 60% of Black people in STEM fields said they had experienced discrimination at work, as had 50% of women, 44% of Asian STEM workers and 42% of Latino people. Pew found that discrimination typically took one of eight forms: being denied a promotion, being turned down for a job, being passed over for important assignments, experiencing repeated slights at work (or microaggressions), receiving less support from above than co-workers, getting paid less than co-workers doing the same job, feeling isolated, and being treated as less than competent.

The stories shared with The Times both capture and transcend those neat categories. Drawn from dozens of interviews, these accounts reflect the experiences, both common and unique, of women, LGBTQ-identifying people, and people of color who work in tech.

| Gaslighting, pay gaps and doxxing at Pinterest
| Racially profiled at the Googleplex
| Empty promises to an Air Force vet at Snap
| A career dogged by dog whistles
| Can’t the poc just recruit their friends?
| Gunning for a promotion—but asked to recruit a (white) boss instead
| Shut out and undermined in virtual reality
| Pushing for change at PatientPop

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“I was supposed to, as a Black woman, provide pros for promoting slave plantations.”

Ifeoma Ozoma, former public policy and social media impact manager at Pinterest
Ifeoma Ozoma, former public policy and social media impact manager at Pinterest

In October 2019, Pinterest came under pressure from the civil rights activist group Color of Change to stop promoting and romanticizing former slave plantations as wedding venues. The group found an ally in Ifeoma Ozoma, at the time a public policy and social impact manager at the company.

“I agree with them on this — completely,” Ozoma wrote in an email notifying her team about the letter from Color of Change.

The company’s decision two months later to limit the reach of plantation wedding content received considerable press coverage. In a public statement, a company spokesperson thanked Color of Change for bringing attention to “this disrespectful practice.” But privately, Ozoma was chastised.

In a performance review, her manager said she should have listed multiple options with pros and cons for each. He accused her of “channeling” the company to her preferred outcome.

“I was supposed to, as a Black woman, provide pros for promoting slave plantations,” Ozoma said.

The episode was part of a pattern in which Ozoma and her colleague Aerica Banks felt isolated for calling out what they saw as problems for the company and its employees. Early in her tenure, Ozoma felt forced to hire an outside lawyer after her supervisors refused to acknowledge the company practice of paying employees of color less and placing them lower than their responsibilities merited. Ozoma and Banks were among those employees; their manager maintained the outward appearance that the three were co-equals within their department while heaping them with responsibilities and controlling their pay and advancement. Ozoma said despite making up “two-thirds of the entire company’s public policy team” and “leading the whole U.S. government relations portfolio” they were placed and paid in levels for “mid-entry-level employees.”

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Aerica Banks, founder of Shisu LLC and a former public policy and social impact manager at Pinterest
(Minh Pham)

On another occasion, Ozoma was forced to hire private security after being doxxed — her personal information published across the internet — in retaliation for Pinterest’s crackdown on medical misinformation. Banks, who had a long career in policy at Google and in the White House before joining the company, warned Pinterest’s management of the doxxing threat, only to be ignored and chastised for criticizing the way another team was handling the issue.

In a separate incident, Banks, who is Black and Japanese, reported their shared manager for making unsolicited remarks about her ethnic heritage, only to be told the remarks carried “no negative connotations.”

Both Banks and Ozoma left Pinterest in May 2020. After the company issued a statement of solidarity with the Black community on June 15, both women tweeted about their issues with unfair pay and leveling. On June 17, Pinterest Chief Executive Ben Silbermann said the company is planning to hire an outside firm to review its compensation practices “starting with people of color.”

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“They’re racist policies and they haven’t changed them.”

Leslie Miley

On June 17, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said the company would put an end to a long-standing practice of directing employees to police their own colleagues and seek out “unauthorized visitors” by checking their badges. “We have realized this process is susceptible to bias,” Pichai wrote in the announcement.

For Leslie Miley, a former engineering director at Google and a Black man who had twice been physically stopped by co-workers when entering company offices, the move was a long time coming.

In September 2019, Miley rode an elevator in Google’s New York office with a white male co-worker. Miley’s employee badge was on his right hip, visible to the man, who stood to his right. The two exited the elevator into a small lobby giving onto a security door. Miley allowed his co-worker to swipe his badge and enter first. As Miley badged in, the man attempted to push the door shut behind him.

“I stick my hand out and walk in the door,” Miley said. “The person’s like, ‘Can I see your badge?’”

Miley ignored him and walked away but the man pursued him and waved his hand in Miley’s face, demanding to see his badge. The man then blocked Miley’s way and chest bumped him, according to Miley. Finally, he grabbed Miley’s badge, which was still hooked up to his hip, and asked why he didn’t just show it to him.

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“I’m looking like, Why did you just initiate physical contact with me?’” Miley recalled. “He said, ‘We need to make sure that people belong here.’”

Miley and others have pointed out the hazards of racist employee policing to Pichai and other Google higher-ups. “I have emails that repeat the exact words that Sundar said [in Wednesday’s statement,]” Miley, who left Google in the fall of 2019, said. “It’s such a pernicious activity that is so easily weaponized. You’ve known about this, it shouldn’t even be an issue anymore.”

To Miley, the use of employee policing was of a piece with other policies that encouraged and institutionalized discrimination and racism. “They’re racist policies,” Miley said. “And they haven’t changed them.” And the fixes Pichai announced, including a $175-million fund to support Black business owners, founders and the rest of the community, are simply not enough.

“I don’t want a hundred-million-dollar commitment,” he said. “I don’t want a dollar figure attached to me. I want sustained investment in a community that you have ignored and I would like companies to admit they have ignored these communities.”

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Empty promises to an Air Force veteran at Snap

Brennan Lawson, a Black Air Force veteran, got his first job in the tech industry at West L.A. tech company Snap in early 2018. Snap had created a program to help veterans find roles in the company. A number of tech companies have pledged to hire veterans or established similar programs.

Before Snap, Lawson applied to one at Twitter in 2016. After extending a verbal offer, the company never followed up, and he learned through the senior employee who referred him that the company had scrapped the program. Twitter said it regretted Lawson’s experience.

At Snap, the veteran fellowship was “very, very poorly run,” Lawson said.

The program was barely marketed; Lawson, who was the only member of his cohort, heard about it through word of mouth. There was little structure: Lawson identified a team he wanted to work for and constructed his own role. The company would continually grant short extensions of three to six months to fellows, instead of offering them permanent positions outright, Lawson said. Snap’s then-head of Global Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Jarvis Sam, who ran the program, left the company midway through Lawson’s fellowship.

After six months, Lawson left Snap for a job at Facebook because of the instability. After leaving, he learned the fellowship program had been discontinued.

Diversity programs are usually “just a person with an initiative and you’re lucky if they happen to stay long enough to see it through.”

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Lawson got his Facebook job through an organization called BreakLine, which provides career transition programs for veterans. He joined the company with about a dozen other veterans. He said there’s a broad sense that big tech companies are difficult to break into for underrepresented groups unless they have an advocate on the inside, or there’s a concerted effort to create a pipeline to a community.

Facebook, like Snap, has a chief diversity officer. These titles provide a sort of cover for the companies, Lawson said.

“You see the title ‘chief diversity officer’ and it’s like, Oh wow, like they must take this really, really seriously, because there are not many companies that have someone running a diversity initiative who is sitting at the executive table. But in reality it may not be.”

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A career dogged by dog whistles

Bari Williams, Head of Legal at Human Interest

Bari Williams, now the head of legal at Human Interest, is an Oakland native and UC Berkeley graduate, and has held high-level positions at Facebook, StubHub and the AI company All Turtles. Still, as a Black woman, she is asked if she got into Berkeley through an affirmative action program. “My husband got asked if he got into college on a basketball scholarship,” Williams said. Her husband, Jaime Williams, is a product manager at Google and previously held roles as the director of engineering at past companies. He doesn’t play basketball.

“With microaggressions, there’s no there there so you can’t go to HR,” Williams said. “And HR is a last resort [for women of color] because it’ll give someone something to retaliate against you for. ... It puts a target on your back.”

Another regular experience: tone policing. In one case, Williams recalled asking a colleague who was not on the legal team not to edit documents she was working on. Another colleague who was white and male had made the same request just days before. But when Williams did it the person complained that she “wasn’t being nice” and was aggressive.

In the last few weeks, Williams and many of her Black colleagues have had to compartmentalize the stress and pain of Floyd’s killing and the fact that she has to explain why people are protesting and the reality of being Black in the United States to her young son.

“Everybody had a moment in the last two weeks where we’re like, ‘Oh man, I really want to just call out Black,” she said. “And you can’t because somebody is still expecting you to hop on that Zoom call the next day and talk about what you watched on Netflix last night, even though nobody cares, like literally nobody. It’s not comfortable, but you have to do it.”

The burden was placed on me.

Anonymous, LatinX project manager in Los Angeles

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Why can’t you just recruit your friends?

In Los Angeles County, where the population is nearly 50% Latino, a project manager at a quickly growing start-up, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, recalled being one of only three Latino people at his company. “I raised the point to executives once we were at about 70 to a hundred employees that there were still only two or three Latinx people working at [the company],” he said. “Rather than say we should do more because here we are in Southern California and only like 3% of the employees are Hispanic, the response I got was, Well who do you know? You should ask your friends to apply.

“The burden was placed on me and the expectation was that if me and other people who are minorities had an issue with it we should use our networks to find people,” he said.

According to him companies chalk up the lack of diversity to a pipeline problem and then “they just kind of throw their hands up.” He said, in his experience, often tech companies’ only interest is to make money and grow. “And anything that doesn’t do that, it’s like, then why are we paying attention to it?”

“There’s a point at which it doesn’t really matter what your intent is, the outcomes are unjust,” he said.

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Gunning for a promotion — but asked to help recruit a new (white) boss instead

Like many who responded to our survey, a career IT professional who identifies as half Black and half Hispanic (and who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation) is haunted by the suspicion that he was denied a promotion because of his race.

“I was in a position many years ago where the position above me opened up, and I expressed to my boss, to the big boss, the next level above that, that I was going to apply for the position,” he said. His boss suggested that he help out on the search committee instead. When he pushed back and said he wanted to apply for the job himself, his boss was unequivocal. “He directly told me: I can’t tell you not to apply for this job, but I can tell you that I don’t think this job is for you.”

He debated what to do with his spouse and his friends, and decided to join the search committee in the end, fearful that his boss would retaliate and hurt his career if he continued to be a squeaky wheel. He had seen it happen to Black co-workers in the past — frozen out or pushed out after speaking up.

“I figured better to be on the inside and be in a position to essentially get to choose my boss than to set myself up for an adversarial situation,” he said. “But I will say that after that search, I found myself thinking that I could and would have done a better job in that role than the person who got it. And the person who got it was a white man.”

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Shut out and undermined in virtual reality

Jordan Mann

For Jordan Mann, who has spent the last 10 years working as a virtual reality and visual effects specialist in Los Angeles, the problems often start as soon as she walks in the door.

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“When I don’t send a picture with my resume, they assume I’m a white man because of my name,” Mann said. On the occasions that she’s called in for an interview without a phone conversation first, the shock is palpable. “It’s like this jolt, they look surprised,” Mann said. “To me right even there that’s bias — why would you be surprised a Black woman is coming through the door?”

If she’s hired, she says, she faces constant undermining from peers and supervisors alike. “I can’t really think of any space I’ve been in where it wasn’t assumed that someone was smarter than me,” Mann said. “People, speaking generally of non-Black people, always make the assumption that I don’t know how to code, that I don’t have any tech skills, that I got a job because of affirmative action, it’s just ridiculous.”

She has seen white peers who began at the same position at a fast-growing virtual reality start-up get promoted up the ladder, while she got pushed out. And once at a different firm, when she thought she was actually getting a permanent job rather than a contract position, things went sideways as soon as she tried to negotiate her salary.

“I countered, and then all of a sudden they rescinded the job offer,” Mann said.

In the end, she was asked to train the white man who was hired for the full-time position, who she said had no experience with the software suite necessary for the job, and then was let go.

Her current employer is the first out of dozens that she says has “actually been respectful and cares about inclusion,” and she credits the company’s leadership for that distinction.

But she thinks that people in the tech and entertainment industry — whether white or non-Black people of color — need to start examining how they treat their Black peers and supporting them when they speak up about discrimination.

“A lot of people don’t even realize how they don’t treat other people like they’re human,” Mann said. “Senior staff needs to educate their employees, and really draw a line: If someone is harassing based on race or ethnicity or anything like that, address it.”

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Pushing for change at PatientPop

Jessica Cooper

When Jessica Cooper moved back to the L.A. area from Washington, D.C., and got a job at the Santa Monica tech company PatientPop, she was shocked at how white the company — and the company’s leadership — was.

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At the Federal Communications Commission, where she had worked in IT, Cooper said, she never felt isolated in her workplace. “Now that I’ve come back home, and working in the tech industry specifically,” Cooper said, “the higher up the ladder you look, you don’t see a lot of women, and you mostly see white males.” On her team, she’s the only Black woman out of 25 employees. The company’s C-suite consists of four white men and one white woman, and the broader leadership includes just one Black executive.

Starting in the summer of 2019, she and her co-workers formed a group to advocate for more diversity and inclusion at the company. She’s grateful that the company has let them do that work on company time, but the last six months had been frustrating, she said.

“I was hopeful at that time,” when she started the group, she said, “but between that time and when the world changed as we know it, there was this frustration, because as much as we felt like we’re fighting for change it seems like business was really prioritized over that.”

“For people who don’t see a need for this, they’re like, ‘No, let’s just keep making money,’” she added. “The wheels are oiled, so let’s keep going.”

But things are beginning to change. After the killing of Floyd and the spread of protests around the country, she’s been pleasantly surprised to see the reaction from her company’s C-suite. Although they were a little slow to move at first, she said, they’ve been working with employees like her to actively hammer out new processes and policies.

The company, which provides online services to medical practices, has seen a decrease in revenue from the COVID-19 crisis, and announced layoffs in early April. That’s put a damper on the potential for change, Cooper said, and has made her group’s core demand of hiring a full-time diversity-and-inclusion executive unlikely to succeed. But the company has been willing to move on a number of changes, such as allowing staff to observe a wider range of significant holidays, and broadening the company’s policy against discrimination and harassment to extend beyond working hours to all interactions between employees.

“We realize we’re in a recession, and COVID is still going on,” Cooper said. “But I’m trying to seize the opportunity to get as much accomplished as possible.”

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Google, Pinterest and Snap all declined to comment on the accounts offered here by former employees.