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For too many Black tech workers, the glass ceiling remains firmly in place

·5 min read
Getty Images

Over the past seven years, the number of Black people working in technical roles at large technology companies has increased by just one percent.

Representation at leadership levels is especially stagnant, with Black workers accounting for only four percent of executive leaders and 4.4% of board seats.

These gaps at the highest level of the corporate hierarchy remain despite unprecedented levels of public interest in the education and careers of Black workers. In recent years, major companies, philanthropists, and the federal government have all rolled out ambitious initiatives aimed at increasing the share of Black workers in fast-growing and high-paying industries like technology. As a result, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are now seeing record levels of investment. But to what end?

Having graduated from Hampton University, an HBCU in southern Virginia, it’s encouraging to witness this new sense of urgency around the fates of Black learners and workers in tech. It’s also heartening to see historically Black colleges and universities finally receive a modicum of the recognition and funding they deserve.

However, as an HBCU graduate working in technology, I’m also acutely aware of the painful disparities still awaiting Black students upon graduation. A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that Black learners are dramatically underrepresented in college majors associated with the fastest-growing, high-paying occupations. The technology industry, for example, is projected to grow 13% by 2030. But while Black employees make up nearly 12% of the nation’s total workforce, they account for only eight percent of this critical industry's workforce.

All this investment and interest means very little if Black graduates continue to face such large barriers to advancement at every step of their career. Our responsibility to Black learners does not end when they earn a diploma and land that first entry-level position. We must do more to ensure the investment Black learners make in their education actually pays off in the long term.

For Black collegegoers, that investment remains a risky one. An analysis by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows Black learners are far more likely to finance their education through loans than their white peers. According to a study by the American Institutes for Research, they also default on their debt at far higher rates.

When I decided to go to college to study computer science, my family had few options for how we would pay for it. My parents had already spent what little money they had on sending my sister to school. While my first year was funded by academic scholarships, I had to borrow student loans to cover the remaining three years. It was an immensely risky decision-and I worried for years that I wouldn’t be able to pay that debt off.

I learned much from my professors and the university laid important groundwork for my eventual career. Through a non-profit organization called INROADS, which partners with major companies to provide career training for diverse students, I landed a crucial internship at IBM. Yet, as I graduated, I remained unsure whether I could find a career in tech that would allow me to pay back my mountain of loans. I knew professional networks and mentors were key to advancing a career, but I saw very few people within leadership positions who looked like me and who I could look up to.

Even now, successful Black role models in technology remain few and far between, and more than half of Black workers report never having a mentor, according to research by the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. That’s in large part because the C-suites at most major companies remain strikingly white. It’s not much better further down the career ladder.

According to research by McKinsey & Co., while Black workers make up 12% of entry-level jobs, they account for just seven percent of first management roles. McKinsey research also suggests Black-owned businesses make up just two percent of businesses in the United States. Last year, Black founders received record amounts of funding and still only accounted for one percent of venture capital, an analysis by Crunchbase found.

Joining a community of Black business leaders was crucial to my eventual success, but the lack of Black tech leaders meant it wasn’t easy locating those role models and mentors. I had to go searching for them. Eventually, I was lucky enough to meet a handful of Black business owners who took me under their wing. That’s ultimately how I found my way. Today, I am an entrepreneur and consultant. Too few young Black workers are as fortunate. With no guide or roadmap for career development or advancement, they are left to fend for themselves.

Fortunately, a growing number of companies and organizations are working to finally close this economic advancement gap. Jobs for the Future recently published a sweeping report that identified hundreds of organizations working to strengthen the learning and working ecosystem for Black Americans.

It took an HBCU education, prestigious internships, and—perhaps most importantly—a network of generous Black business leaders to get me where I am today. Increased investments in HBCUs and other educational opportunities for Black learners is a great start, but we can’t stop there.

To ensure that Black Americans can thrive in our growing digital economy, we must not only widen access to higher education but cultivate workplace cultures that create long-term career pathways well beyond the point of hire. That includes tearing down the many barriers to advancement, ensuring today’s Black workers can become the leaders of tomorrow, and disrupting this perpetual cycle of exclusion.

Rick Suber is a senior consultant in the software industry.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com