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Diversity in Tech: The Psychological Toll of Being Underrepresented

A “Unicorn.” This is how Gail* describes herself. “I was groomed for this type of work.”

Gail’s parents were in tech long before tech was a thing. She describes that her mother and father made sure she was “well-spoken” and highly educated. She now works as a Data Infrastructure Engineer at a hot startup in San Francisco.

She is also African-American.

Gail remembers being three years old and overhearing her parents discussing their frustrations about the ‘crazy’ things happening at work – craziness that her parents ascribed to racial differences. When they highlighted race as a contributing factor, Gail – still a toddler – asked, “Why does that matter?” 

Gail’s parents shared “knowing glances” but did not answer her question. “As I got older I realized they didn’t want to bias me in ‘the new world’ with their prior experiences and beliefs. They wanted me to be able to trust people and not be cynical because they knew that was the price of admission in corporate America.”

As one of the rare biracial therapists in San Francisco, I wasn’t practicing long before the under-represented in tech began to seek me out. I became curious about the unique challenges faced by people of color who are determined to enter a world that has been largely devoid of… well, people like them.

In San Francisco proper, there are only about 1,000 African Americans working in tech, and Latinos make up only 4% of the total workforce in leading tech companies.

Even as a tech outsider, the cry for more “diversity in tech” has not escaped me.  With the African American population in San Francisco dwindling down to a mere 6% and the Latino population on track to shrink to 12% over the coming years, I found myself wondering what, exactly, does diversity in tech look like.

What is it like on the ground for people like Gail – to be in an environment where, to be blunt, no one looks like you. What is the psychological impact of working for a company where the leadership is entirely composed of individuals who do not share a similar background – be that ethnically, economically, socially or – in some cases – all three?

Over the past few weeks, I have been interviewing Black, Latina or bi-racial women in tech to find out what it’s like to be on the front lines in an industry where their existence is as extraordinary as that of the heroine in my favorite childhood film. What’s it like to be, in Gail’s words, a unicorn?

Erika, an African-American Millenial who has done quite well for herself in the tech world at large, is new to San Francisco.

“It’s very different, very different, very different compared to other places I have lived.”

Erika moved here from a city where the African-American population was over 50%. To say there was a culture shock upon relocating to the bay area would be an understatement. When at the office, networking events, or even just walking down the street, Erika expects to be one of only a handful – if that – of Black women. She recalls being at a work meeting and, when it came to her time to present, her co-workers began rapping to her.

“I didn’t have to look for community,” Erika says, recalling her previous city. “I’d just walk down the street and see Black people.”

She tells me about the ubiquitous idea of the “culture fit.” Companies want to hire individuals who feel like a “good match,” which, Erika explains, translates to “How close are you to being a white boy? How much do you like beer?

“Craft beer,” I hastened to add.

For Eva – a Mexican woman who works as a director of user experience in another local company – the lack of minorities in leadership positions throughout her career has been disheartening. At times, it has made her question her own ability to rise up the ranks, despite her impressive resume.

“I would say it does feel less attainable,” Eva tells me when I ask what it’s like to work in an environment where there are very few Mexican-American women in leadership positions. “My parents were uneducated – my mother dropped out of school to work at her parents’ factory when she turned 12. Most of the women in leadership positions come from middle class to wealthy backgrounds – whose parents were college educated. Being a manager is something that I constantly have doubts about -Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Can I really mentor someone?”

Despite her Harvard education, Eva wonders if she is really cut out for this.

Zee describes herself as “a creative, free spirit,” a biracial kid who grew up in the rural south. Raised by a single white mom, Zee quickly came to appreciate the duality of life and learned, from an early age, that things weren’t going to be “inherently fair.” This, perhaps, made her particularly well suited for tech in the bay area.

“I busted out of every box people wanted to put me into,” She tells me. “Anytime I exhibited having an aptitude, people wanted to me put me in that box. I busted out. That ability has given me a lot of opportunities that I don’t think are afforded to a lot of people, but they were certainly not ever handed to me.”

Being 41 and bi-racial and a woman, Zee is a pioneer. She has been watching closely as the ‘diversity in tech’ movement takes shape and she has seen it flounder.

My experience when it comes to people of color in the bay area and in technology, people want to attack the problem like they want to attack a lot of things – let me put a plan in place, let me do this without addressing the soil. They want to focus on the plants, but not the soil that is conducive for the plants to grow.”

When underrepresented employees do not thrive, Zee tells me, they are blamed. It is rare for the leadership to examine the larger system – the soil – and ask what they ought to be doing differently to ensure the success of all of their employees.

One thing I discovered while doing these interviews is that each one of these women is exceptional. Each one is emotionally intelligent, competitive, insightful, highly educated and bold. They do not take shit.

And, as each interviewee demonstrated in their own way, this gets to the heart of the problem. As an underrepresented person, you have to be beyond extraordinary to land a position in tech.

Erika points out that, to be Black and in tech, you cannot be “just” brilliant. You must graduate Summa Cum Laude from a top tier university with your MBA and PhD tucked firmly under your belt.

Oh, and, just to be safe, try to be conversant in matters of Artisanal Toast.

What are the psychological ramifications of being the token “colored person” in one of the most innovative environment markets in the world? What emotional impact does it have to be the individual at a company who stands in for an entire population? What does it feel like to be the ‘Black best friend’ who lets everyone off the hook when an uncomfortable joke is made at the post-work happy hour?

Exploring these questions with my clients is the work of psychotherapy. Together, we must take up the psychological repercussions that arise from standing at the intersection between well-intentioned policy and the constant failure of companies to uphold those policies. It is a daily challenge for the underrepresented in tech to maintain their complex emotional experience while navigating a work environment that asks them to check much of their personhood at the door.


This is the first in a series about underrepresented women in tech. If you’re interested in participating in an interview, please email the author at tiffanymclain.therapist@gmail.com.

*All names and identifying information have been changed.

Tiffany McLain

Tiffany McLain

Tiffany McLain has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities, be this professionally, ethnically or economically.

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