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I have always been fascinated by the impact of science and business innovation on the invention and adoption of new technologies, and ultimately, human progress. Fortunately, I have had a first-hand experience of both, through STEM education and a career in the UK’s tech sector. I have noticed, however, in the history of technology and innovation, the contributions of Black women are conveniently ‘written out’. Thus preventing the opportunity of young Black girls to have visible role models and heroes.

Representation matters  

According to PwC, 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in tech. According to a report by the Inclusive Tech Alliance Report, women from BAME ethnic backgrounds account for just 1.8% of female board members and 2.1% of senior executives.

The lack of visibility of Black women in technology can discourage others from starting a career within the industry, after all, you can’t be what you can’t see and this makes it harder to level the playing field.

As Black History Month is a reflection of the incredible diversity that exists within the Black community and the celebration of Black excellence, I want to shine a well-deserved spotlight on some Black female pioneers and innovators in the field of science and technology:

Annie Easley: the woman you have to thank for hybrid car batteries

She was a computer scientist and mathematician. Annie held simulations at a 'Reactor Lab', and is known for her work in developing and implementing code that led to the development of the battery used in the first hybrid cars.

Katherine G. Johnson: one of NASA’s human ‘computers’

She performed the complex flight path calculations for the first NASA mission to space. Her calculations helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module, which landed the first three men on the Moon.

Dr Nneka Abulokwe: one of the most influential UK tech leaders

Dr Nneka is the founder of MicroMax Consulting and Chair of ISACA London Board Nominations Committee. With an extensive career of over 25 years driving innovative technology and business transformation, she is one of the first Black female professionals to sit on the board of a multinational tech company in the UK.

Benefits of diversity

According to BCG, organisations with the greatest gender diversity generated 34% more financial returns. 90% of employees of underrepresented groups are willing to leave their jobs for a more inclusive and diverse organisation, estimating the cost of replacing workers to be more than $25 billion a year. Therefore society should recognise that Black women and other ethnic minorities have a lot to contribute if they are given the opportunity.

Cultural psychology is important for companies to understand the diverse needs of customers. An inclusive culture in companies, increases creativity, innovation and openness by 59.1% and the ability to better assess consumer interest and demand by 37.9%. An HBR study showed a 150% increase in customer acquisition in teams with a member group related to the market segment they are targeting.

Creating opportunities, shifting mindsets

It’s a pipeline problem'. That's the common assumption as to why the ratio of Black women in the tech scene is low but this argument does not hold.

At the earliest stages of education, Black girls need role models, mentors and teachers that make a conscious effort to deconstruct misconceptions they may have about their capabilities. In 2018, there were just 26 Black British female Professors in UK universities. Academic institutions can showcase more visible role models such as alumni and professors as well as preparing Black women and ethnic minorities for the technology workforce.

Companies can be more intentional in creating strategies to diversify their corporate boards. Black women should be given roles that allow them to do far more than tackle diversity within a company. Another issue is the assumption by recruiters that underrepresented talent does not exist and the bias in the recruitment process. This needs to change and companies need a diverse hiring team.

42% of net new women-owned businesses are by Black women. Between 2014-2019, businesses owned by Black women increased by 50%. More than 37% of Black women tech founders are in high growth sectors like financial services, healthcare, AI, sustainable energy and machine learning. The sobering reality is that there is a lack of access to finance and support and this is the largest obstacle to entrepreneurship. My advice to investors, policymakers, and support organisations: do not rely on the typical profile for a founder. Step outside your network and invest in venture funds and financing programmes focused on ethnic minorities.

Several initiatives such as Coding Black Females, Stemettes, Black in AI and UK Black Tech recognise the need to create networks for members of the BAME community and have designed solutions to help them get better access to the technology sector.

My advice to Black women trying to enter the technology sector is to not let imposter syndrome, fear of failure, or self-sabotage prevent them from going for what they want.

Join STEM communities, learn to code, find mentors in STEM and when the time comes, apply for those opportunities/jobs you want regardless of not meeting 100% of the requirements.

The future looks bright

In conclusion, role models currently working in technology are more likely to influence Black girls to consider a career in tech and society can do more by taking advantage of the talent that exists within the Black and ethnic minority communities and more support is needed to change future ratios. In recent years and following the recent Black Lives Matter movement, companies are investing more in diversity and inclusion programmes and there is more influx of investments in Black businesses. We still have a long way to go, but the future looks exciting.

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Black History Month at Imperial

Rakiya Galadima Suleiman

About Rakiya Suleiman

MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management 2017
Rakiya Suleiman (MSc Innovation Entrepreneurship & Management 2017) works at Homeppl as a Growth Product Manager for guarantid, a digital rent guarantor service and is responsible for guarantid's vision, planning, usability, business development and design. She is passionate about greater inclusion and diversity for women and ethnic minorities in the technology sector.