Working in Toronto's tech community for the past five years, Saadia Muzaffar has overheard racist jokes only to be told, "I didn't mean all brown people – you're cool." Born and raised in Pakistan, the 38-year-old entrepreneur has been told it's a good thing she doesn't have an accent – in other words, it's a good thing she sounds white.
"The startup world is rife with reminders of how much somebody like me still does not belong there in 2015," says Ms. Muzaffar, senior director of marketing for software provider AudienceView and founder of TechGirls Canada, which promotes women and minorities in the field.
Data on people of colour in technology companies offer the same reminders, and while much attention has been given to the massive gender disparity in the field, far less has been paid to the issue of race.
Canadian statistics are not readily available, but diversity reports from U.S. tech giants offer a glimpse. Google released a report on diversity in its ranks last year and many of its major tech peers, including Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, Intel and HP, followed suit. The results were stark: This year, the tech staff in Google's work force, for example, were 59-per-cent white and 35-per-cent Asian; people who are Hispanic, black, of two or more races and other people of colour collectively made up just 6 per cent of the work force. At the senior leadership level, the disparity was even greater: 72 per cent of employees were white, 23 per cent Asian, and Hispanic, black, multiracial and other employees made up less than 6 per cent.
Insiders and observers of Canada's tech and startup scenes cite similar trends, and note that Toronto's, in particular, doesn't reflect the diversity of the city at large.
"You can just take a walk around the offices of any major tech company … people of colour simply don't get hired," says Andray Domise, the 35-year-old founder of Techsdale, a program that teaches kids from at-risk Toronto neighbourhoods to code video games.
Mr. Domise, who is of Jamaican background, met with local companies before launching the program earlier this year. He describes the city's tech scene as "white … with a smattering of Asian and East Asian people."
"It kind of tells you who is welcome and who is not," he says.
Karl Martin, founder and chief technology officer of Toronto-based wearable tech firm Nymi, says certain ethnic groups are simply absent among job applications. "Of the applicants we receive, so few are black," he says, adding he's wary of oversimplifying an issue that is complex and often socioeconomic. "I think it's both a pipeline issue and an issue of how people are treated once they are in the field."
A black, female tech CEO, Nadia Hamilton, agrees. The founder of Toronto-based Magnusmode, which develops apps for people with autism, Ms. Hamilton says she has never felt held back in her career. But she points out that she had strong family support to help realize her dreams. "There is always going to be this subset of society that cannot access [opportunities] because they're forced to grow up too fast," she says.
Young people in at-risk communities must often choose between after-school jobs and other activities that could help broaden their choices, she notes. And the idea of starting your own business in that climate is simply not discussed.
"Entrepreneurs have to be able to take a certain amount of risk," Ms. Hamilton says. "If you do not have a cushion to fall back on, it is so much more difficult to make that leap."
It's a harsh reality game developer Elizabeth LaPensée knows well. Ms. LaPensée, who is Anishinaabe, Métis and Irish, points to the case of John Romero, a creator of the massively popular video game Doom. She says Mr. Romero, who is of Yaqui and Cherokee heritage, was forced to teach himself programming on computers in stores and libraries. She says financial support for anything related to tech is particularly hard to come by on reserves in Canada and the United States. "I question councils putting funding for games before more actionable work in communities," says Duluth, Minn.-based Ms. LaPensée, who completed her PhD at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University.
Countless studies have found that diversity improves results in business. McKinsey's Diversity Matters report published in February found that ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to outperform their peers.
"… We are drowning in data that diversity helps innovation and innovation is the only ticket you have to stay relevant in any sector," Ms. Muzaffar says.
So why aren't more companies making diversity a priority?
Some major companies, including Google, have initiated "diversity strategies," creating programs and setting goals to try to address the gaps.
But Allen Lau, CEO and co-founder of Wattpad, a social platform for writers and readers, says the racial balance in tech seems to be improving, and will continue to correct itself naturally over time.
"Going to Toronto tech events, it's still white male overindexed … that being said, I don't believe the problem is very severe," he says, adding that the diversity of his staff gives the company a competitive edge. He estimates that approximately half his employees were born outside Canada or are bilingual. "… We can address the global market better than most companies in the U.S.," he says.
Nymi's Mr. Martin supports affirmative action, but says his company has struggled to apply the principle in a way "that would allow us to still meet our basic hiring needs. … As a small startup, we're very selective and have found it difficult to find any candidates to fill roles."
Ms. Muzaffar cautions that there's no easy fix, and that it's not up to minorities to solve the problem.
"We need to stop thinking about [diversity and equality] as something that comes out of HR," she says. "If you work with people, if you hire people, if you manage people – you have to be part of this. It needs to start with you."