Black Men: Women's Allies at Tech Companies

There’s a unique perspective to be gained from being in a majority and a minority at the same time.

Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Companies in STEM fields exhibit serious deficiencies of racial and gender diversity, and some of them are the first to admit it. For a long time, many major companies refused to release demographic data about their workforces, but now they’re disclosing it and vowing to change.

As they talk about coming up with solutions, they might want to note how race and gender—often thought of as two discrete types of diversity—intersect in the behavior of black men in STEM fields, who tend to offer lots of support to women. As members of both a majority and a minority, these men reveal how people who understand what it’s like to be underrepresented in STEM fields can be more likely to help those in similar positions.

In general, research has painted a reasonably good picture of how men in male-dominated fields can act in ways that make it harder for women to assimilate and advance. Kris Paap, a colleague of mine, has written about her experiences working in construction, where she found herself hampered by gender stereotypes and closed social circles. Men excluded her from conversation, made jokes about her appearance, and, in one particularly painful anecdote, implied that her late-term miscarriage was proof of women’s general unfitness for construction work. Similarly, the sociologist Marianne Cooper’s work on family-leave policies reveals that sometimes, men avoid taking time off as a way to demonstrate their commitment to demanding jobs, fulfilling a stereotypical image of a male worker unencumbered by familial constraints.

There’s some evidence that these dynamics are at least partly present at tech companies. Anecdotally, news stories provide several examples of women excluded, isolated, and sometimes even pushed into other fields. More concretely, my colleagues Christine Williams, Chandra Mueller, and Kristine Kilanski have demonstrated that female geoscientists run into these issues—they lack support and mentors, and feel their professional abilities aren’t respected.

These findings are, while disappointing, straightforward enough. But the scholarship in this area often neglects to consider whether these behaviors are consistent across racial lines, and my own research on black male professionals suggests they aren’t. I wanted to understand how these men experience confidence when they were members of a majority, but tokenism when they were in a minority. So I spoke to black men in engineering, law, medicine, and finance about their social ties at work and the stereotypes they encountered.

I found that rather than promoting the alienating processes detailed in the literature, many of these men instead demonstrated an acute awareness of the ways a masculine work culture put their female colleagues at a disadvantage. For instance, one cardiologist I interviewed described a “gentleman’s-club mentality” that he said pervaded medicine. He talked about how this culture excluded female doctors and taught men to discount their viewpoints and contributions. But tellingly, he also told me that one of his primary goals was to counter this perspective, and be a model of a male doctor who treated his female peers fairly and equitably—with high expectations for their success and a belief that they belonged in the field. He described his personal project as striving to be a “model of excellence” and to show other doctors how “a young black man could succeed.” Importantly, treating women colleagues respectfully and fairly was central to this image of success.

I also interviewed an engineering professor who empathized with the challenges he saw his female coworkers encounter. He told me that as a black man in engineering, he’d often been underestimated and marginalized. With that in mind, he took specific steps to help create a climate of inclusion for the women in his classes. Some of the examples he provided were subtle but meaningful. He made a point of using women as examples in exams, as in, “Suppose a bike rider wants to stop her bike in the shortest possible amount of time. How should she do it?”

While few white men would openly admit to hindering the career advancement of women, I did find a difference in perspective when I spoke to white and black male professionals. The handful of white men I interviewed for my research did not describe the same, or even similar, strategies for lending a hand to women. That finding, while extracted from a limited sample, is consistent with research about the unsupportive (and sometimes even hostile) behavior of white men working in law, higher education, and finance.

What does this mean for efforts to diversify STEM fields? It may be that the important role that black men can play in, say, tech companies has been overlooked, as studies show that having supportive allies can be important in the career advancement of people from underrepresented groups.

Still, black men shouldn’t be seized upon as a panacea for the STEM workforce’s uniformity—hiring more of them won’t trigger trickle-down effects that solve diversity problems, and asking black male workers to bear this responsibility would be unfair. On top of that, it shouldn’t be forgotten that black male professionals still encounter the very things that taught them a bit of what a woman’s experience might be like.

Ultimately, though, it’s encouraging that as more and more people in minority groups—whether racial minorities or women—enter the industry, its workforce will become more and more understanding of what it’s like to feel excluded.