The poor representation of Black Canadians in tech is lacking attention

Because of a toxic culture, engineering and computer science is an unwelcoming space for Black Canadians

Photo courtesy of Black Boys Code

Written by: Giovanni HoSang, SFU Student

I have been in the Bachelors of Science in computing science at SFU since transferring here from Jamaica’s University of the West Indies in 2015. In that time, the culture shock I’ve experienced has been massive. I’ve found it rather difficult to be comfortable in certain spaces as the (at most times) only Black student amongst other students, some of whom don’t particularly understand certain issues in the Black community, sometimes belittling our experiences.

The technical aspects of university in Canada haven’t been too troubling, but the social culture that makes fun of my community and myself absolutely has been. Both myself and people in my social circle have encountered tons of light “jokes” made around the campus, regarding neo-Nazis “not being as bad” and critiques of Black people in the industry being deserved. “Jokes” like that are troubling, but when the people making them are called out, they automatically brush it off as you trying to enforce “censorship.”

These sorts of attitudes don’t make for a comfortable education space. It’s dehumanizing, and their prominence in computing science and engineering is definitely impacting why there’s so few Black Canadians pursuing jobs in tech.

Black tech professionals make up only 3% of the total Silicon Valley workforce in the U.S. In Facebook and many other Silicon Valley companies in the U.S., this is at least starting to improve. Many now hire individuals to act as diversity advocates, which are supposed to allow for critical engagement amongst the companies to make them more welcoming, as well as to branch out into the Black communities to find talent. They have a challenging task, but are a step in making the field more open and accessible.

However, there are far fewer such initiatives in Canada, with our tech companies not even collecting much information about the issue. With many companies not working to remedy or look further into it, Canada has a long way to go in implementing equitable hiring practices for Black people in tech companies. This is very much due to the current social culture, which in turn fails to create a safe space for the Black community to flourish.

That said, this toxic culture can be remedied with better Black representation by incentivizing Black youth-to-peer programmes, working with each other, creating a sense of normalcy in the field, and making them feel safe in these spaces. One of these came earlier this year, when the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) hosted their 12-hour hackathon in Toronto. At the event, Black Canadian students could work together on fast tech projects and network. As an NSBE member, this had me excited and wanting to attend, but because of the cost of travel and the number of things I had to do this semester, the opportunity missed me.

But as great as these events are, they can be few and far between in Canada. Their scarcity is one of the reasons I quickly jumped at the opportunity to get involved in and within spaces that allow me to flourish and connect with other tech professionals that look like me, and to volunteer for organizations who aim to change the scope of the tech industry to encourage youth who look like me. For example, organizations like Black Boys Code, aimed at making things more comfortable for marginalized communities to get involved, do a great service by providing a necessary and welcoming social climate.

In any case, there’s a deep need for more opportunities and support for Black Canadians across technology fields. Canada needs to start ramping up its data collection and do away with the “visible minority” category, and more companies need to recognize the need to partake in specific hiring practices to attract and encourage Back technology enthusiasts. They need to also see the need to recruit and hire more Black tech professionals in their companies. Better representation in this workforce can lead to an industry that everyone can feel happier and more welcome in.