Tech's Black Side Hustle Hurdle

Oct 15, 2020

3 min read

Despite gains in diversity among early career workers, Black executives remain rare in the technology sector. While the lion’s share of the blame for this is allotted to institutional prejudices and ineffective retention programs, there’s a practical value for diversity practitioners in reminding HR stakeholders and members of the C-suite that external historical and cultural factors likely undercut even well-conceived retention programs aimed at Black employees.

The Executive Parity Index, the ratio of a demographically defined percentage of executives to a demographically defined percentage of employees, documents the persistence of inequality in leadership. Across American industry, the EPI for white men is 1.81 and 0.63 for black men. The EPI for white women is 0.65 and 0.30 for black women. Though the EPI for black women in tech is 0.03 at 0.61 than it is across non-tech industries (and has likely crept up since data was last collected in 2015), C-suites in the tech industry are, on the whole, whiter and more heavily male than in American business as a whole.

This should not and does not shock anyone with experience in the industry. A decade ago when I was a CEO in Silicon Valley, the weaponized euphemism was “culture fit,” a phrase persistently deployed to justify reliance on established professional networks for both talent and accepted wisdom. More recently, “pattern matching” has come into vogue. This idea is largely the same: Prior success justifies the continuation of discriminatory practices. This like-seeks-like dynamic is damaging and deserving of attention, but to focus exclusively on exclusivity is to attempt explain attrition without acknowledging its historical and economic context. That’s a mistake.

The “Duncan Segregation Index,” developed by quantitative sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan, measures occupational segregation by taking the percentage of Black workers who would need to change jobs with white workers (or vice versa) in order for full occupations to be reflective of total population dynamics. The DSI for Black women and white men changed from 59 percent to 56 percent between 2000 and 2016. That is to say that despite further integration over the last few decades Black labor — specifically Black female labor, but Black male labor as well — remains largely segregated from white labor. The historical and economic context of work itself is different for Black Americans. This doesn’t cease to be true simply because a Black worker has a white-collar job or a higher salary.

Many Black workers have a different relationship with corporate enterprise than their white colleagues. This is perhaps best and most consistently expressed by a culture of side hustling.

Almost half of Black workers have two jobs. With the median Black household income less than two-thirds of the median white household income, it’s not wonder why. Malcolm X famously wrote that "everyone in Harlem needed some kind of hustle to survive” and that hustle remains normative behavior in Black communities, where the concept of work and the concept of workplace may be more delineated than in more affluent white communities.

Johns Hopkins University Political Science Professor Lester Spence describes the broader reconceptualizing of work that takes in a multiple-job culture in Knocking the Hustle, his skeptical treatise on the subject.

Whereas in the late sixties and early seventies the hustler was someone who consistently sought to get over, the person who tried to do as little work as possible in order to make ends meet, with the “hustled” being the people who were victimized by these individuals (“He hustled me”), the hustler is now someone who consistently works…. The hustle, rather than being the act of trying to get over, has now been transformed to the point where it means the exact opposite: “hustle” and “grind” are now often used interchangeably.

If Black workers are less likely to believe professional, career-oriented labor is somehow exceptional, which is to say “more respectable” than personal hustle, that fact needs to enter into conversations about worker attrition, the promotion of BIPOC works, and executive parity. If Black workers, observing the Executive Parity Index and the Duncan Segregation Index in the workplace, are more prone to concluding that operating in white spaces represents a risk and that diversification is the responsible course of action, that fact needs to enter into conversations about Black worker outcomes as well.

Intel cofounder Andy Grove once said that it takes a healthy paranoia to create something out of nothing. That kind of paranoia is natural among workers who can observe a lack of executive parity and hear the echo of “culture fit.” And that kind of paranoia isn’t just present in founders, it’s present in leavers, workers who, more often than not, see more risk in continuing their current employment than trying something new. If that kind of paranoia is, for entirely understandable reasons, endemic to the Black professional class, it must be directly addressed by organizations aiming for retention and elevation. Additional salary helps, but additional and ongoing communication above and beyond what’s normative is critical to changing the norms.

Lines of Thought:

1: Support for Black employee side hustles and personal projects may align profit motives with cultural goals.

2: Employees’ relationship with work is defined by both their career experiences and those of their parents. That creates a potential cultural rift even among pattern-matched people.