I am not a Unicorn

Last night, I went to support Tanya Powell's talk on UK BAME women in tech at Ladies of Code's lightning talks. For her first ever talk, she sure knows how to pick them.

As someone who worked in the media industry for years, it was one of those things that though unspoken you acknowledge either when someone who looks like you gets hired in the company you work for, you rock up at an agency and you see someone who looks like you or you go for an interview and there’s someone like you already in the company. Yes, we take note. You try your hardest to get the persons attention and discretely acknowledge each other.

Now to the real pandora’s box or a can of worms, whatever you want to call it. As Tanya highlighted in her talk, the existing conversations around diversity in tech basically mean women in tech. As women make up 50% of the population, it makes sense that there be a greater representation of us in tech. However, 40% of the UK’s population are BAME’s yet there is little or no call to encourage racial diversity in tech. For the few companies that have openly talked about diversity and inclusion, little progress has actually been made. Some people will not be jumping up and down declaring they a 50/50 gender split. And I commend the few that have managed to achieve this but look again, what percentage of the team are BAME? As Jenny Brennan herself said last night, “I’m probably as close to the white middle class male from Oxbridge as you can get”. She ticks all but one of those boxes.

Now as a black woman in tech, I know when I’m thinking of diversity my colour comes before my gender because when I’m in the work enviornment or at a networking event or at a conference or a hackathon, I’m often the only one or one of the few in room. For Tanya this means working in a company of 900 people, 90% of whom are in a tech role yet only 2 are black. Let me repeat, only 2 are black. The lack of racial diversity and more so, racial+gender diversity is glaring.

When trying to find some statistics on BAME women in tech in the UK, Tanya found nothing. Not surprising really, when according to Susanne Knudsen’sCaught in the web or lost in the text book, black women are often overlooked in research and treated as being on the fringe of race and gender.  So, the big question here is, is it that there are so few women or even people of colour in tech in the UK that we are not worth documenting or that the majority are hidden, sitting under the radar so we are not aware that they exist?

Now, I cannot speak for other communities but in the black community, tech is not seen as what “we” do especially amongst Afro Caribbeans. Engineering basically equates to a mechanic or a sound engineer and it’s what men do. It’s a little better in African communities as STEM is highly respected. Female chemical, mechanical or electrical engineers are not uncommon. Thankully, this mindset has permeated into technology. When thinking about the black developers and engineers that I know, I became acquainted with a significant number through introductions for an African tech development specific need and the rest through events or sheer serendipidity. It is only when you start to actually ask the question or proactively search, that you unearth blacks in tech roles that you would otherwise not know exist. At Ada's List, as part of ourWOCintech panel during London Tech Week, we agreed that the conversation should include a BAME male to get a different perspective on things. Yet, when we collectively tried to identify a prominent figure with industry experience, we were stumped. We had to reach out to our personal networks for suggestions.

Whichever of the two questions is true, it is long overdue for both female and male BAME’s to be worth documenting in industry statistics. At a recent tech event, a black female software engineer was described as a unicorn. Now, while some may see that as a compliment and want to run around declaring themselves with this badge. May I just remind you that a unicorn is a mythical creature and I sure as hell know, I exist.

So, as an experiment and crude attempt to understand the state of BAME’s in tech in the UK, I would like to get BAME’s to tweet me what you do, in which company and ethnic background (let’s keep it simple – African, Asian, Middle East, Afro Caribbean, Hispanic. If you’re a mixuture then put both separating with a forward slash) with the #NotAUnicorn hashtag. Or if you know someone, tweet me their handle with the above info with the hashtag. I’m going to create a Twitter List for this and turn it into statistics.

Thinking back to how I ended up at Tanya’s talk, it was because of my tweet about the Mayor’s digital talent programme declaring that they will be tackling the issue of getting young BAME’s into tech. So, I would really like the list to be used by educators to find developers, engineers and designers that kids can look at and recognise in themselves, to go into schools and show them that it is what “we” do.

July 25, 2016
Emem Rita Usanga
Membership & Strategy