by Pamela Weinsaft Editor of part of Evolved People Media LLC

Last week, the released an eye-opening report. Entitled “Obstacles and Solutions for Underrepresented Minorities (URM) in Technology”, the report examines why women—and men— from underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds, namely African-American/Black; Hispanic/Latino, Native American, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, are generally in few in number in computer science and engineering fields.

Dr. Caroline Simard, Ph.D., Director of Research and Executive Programs at the Anita Borg Institute spoke with The Glass Hammerabout her findings.

The report states that [URM] represent 27% of the US population, hold 46 18% of Bachelor’s degrees in computer science, and 12% of engineering degrees,” but are only 6.8% of technical employees. Also, “since 1995, the representation of African-American and Hispanic/Latina women among computer science degree recipients has remained flat—Hispanic women earn less than 2% of computer science bachelor’s degrees. Despite the growth of the Hispanic population in the US, only 0.03% of all female Hispanic freshmen planned to major in computer science in 2006, the lowest of all Science and Engineering disciplines.”

Native American women are lagging as well: they represent less than 1% of computer science degrees. And, according to the report, “African-American women represent 4.8% of the graduate enrollment in computer science, yet they represent 7% of the US population.”

Dr. Simard found a variety of contributing factors, including non-workplace conditions such as limited access to technology and curriculum from early on; limited personal perceptions of potential career paths; and lack of access to influential social networks. The workplace-specific factors included widespread bias and gender stereotyping; lack of mentors and role models; isolation; and the pressure of tokenism.

And for those URM women who do enter the industry, the study shows there is a tough road ahead in terms of advancement within the company. The proportion of African-American technical women drops precipitously over time, from 4.6% at the entry level to 1.6% at the upper management level. Even more shocking are the numbers for Latina/Hispanic women. Where they make up 5% of the technology workforce at the entry level, that number drops to zero percent at the highest levels. This means that those women who fought through the barriers to entry into the tech field are so dissatisfied that they are leaving their companies before advancing to management level.

“Women of color have a double whammy,” said Dr. Simard, “a double bias of race and gender, which automatically puts them at the bottom of the pack in people’s minds because of unconscious bias.” Dr. Simard pointed out that more than half of the URM women who participated in the survey indicated that they intended to leave their jobs in the foreseeable future.

That’s bad news for US tech companies, many of which are just starting to understand that their competitiveness, and that of the United States as a whole, requires having enough women and minorities at the table when decisions are made. Said Dr. Simard, “The management is concerned about retention and diversity because they know they need diversity to innovate. With layoffs and people leaving, companies are concerned about losing the ground they gained in terms of diversity. Companies are really at risk of losing crucial talent.”

Dr. Simard lists several actions that can be taken to retain tech URMs in general and URM women in particular. “Flexibility is important to all technical employees, and even more critical to the retention of women of color, who are facing significant work-life challenges.” Companies should also provide URMs in tech with opportunities to update technical and leadership skills.

Finally, the creation of a mentoring culture and an obvious commitment to diversity are crucial to the retention and advancement of URM women in tech.

“Women of color in particular perceive diverse leadership as critical to retention. Previous research shows that diversity breeds diversity, and that leadership diversity increases the representation of minorities at all [points along] the pipeline.”

But “there is hope”, added Dr. Simard during our conversation. The recent announcement that Ursula Burns, a mechanical engineer by training, will succeed Anne Mulcahy as CEO of Xerox,assures that “there is at least a role model that people can look at. Now, when young African American girls look around, there is now least one role model – and that makes a huge difference.”