Silicon Valley, New Space Companies, Diversity Statistics and Questions

Near the end of “Civil Astronaut Launch, its Cheerleaders, Uncivil Society” I posed this question regarding the future of diversity in space: will it be inclusive?

I raise that question based on some racial attitudes in the United States, raised again by the murder of an American citizen by those who should be displaying higher standards of behavior and judgment. I raise it as a person who has half of his genes from Mexican stock. I raise it as a researcher who is fully aware that the U.S. technology sector, especially the sector stemming from the companies in Silicon Valley, is very, very bad at getting a diversified workforce in place.

There is irony there, considering many of these companies are ensconced in a very socially progressive state--California. The companies also consider their technologies to be all-encompassing solutions--but those solutions tend to come from people with very similar experiences and outlooks on life.

Very basic failings, such as artificial intelligence failing to make distinctions among people of color for image recognition, show how hobbled these industries are without diversity, making mistakes that a more diverse workforce might have helped the companies avoid. These mindsets incorporate unspoken and maybe unrecognized biases into systems used in some applications for law enforcement, whose practitioners typically don’t question system results.

The space industry is a subdivision of the technology sector which means that most of the issues impacting the larger sector are very much in play for the space industry--particularly the newer companies that advocate Silicon Valley-styles of running their space businesses. This is troubling when it comes to the industry’s future, especially when certain “new space” companies appear to be calling the shots in its direction.

Why Diversity?

For those who put aside the “because it’s the right thing to do” argument and wants more reasons for a company to hire as many different kinds of qualified people for open positions as possible, first--really?? And second, there are good business reasons to work with a diverse group of people.

There are a few studies that have found a diverse team in a company typically will yield better results and performance than a homogeneous team. The different ways a diverse team of individuals perceives, analyzes and answers problems allow it to cobble together a best of breed solution which more often than not appears to help their company outperform one that is less diverse (all other circumstances being equal).

This is actually one thing the U.S. government does better than some private sector counterparts--at least in some parts of it.

In the USAF, there are individuals from all types of backgrounds, cultures, and colors. While the service could do a better job in encouraging more diversity, such as with religious tolerance and gender, it still, at some point, uses different perspectives and experiences to make a more effective combat force. Racism does exist in the service, though. And the US Department of Defense seems to think that gender is somehow tied to patriotism and duty performance.

From what I’ve seen of NASA, it’s very similar to the USAF in how it encourages this diversity. It doesn’t even appear to care about gender, which is a mature stance to take. None of it’s perfect, but at least people from all backgrounds seem to have a chance at a successful career and maybe change things for the better. But coming from either the USAF or NASA and moving to the private sector is probably a shock.

Failing at the Fundamentals: Hiring

In contrast, the technology sector in the U.S. has nothing like the USAF or NASA’s workforce, in terms of diversity. Blacks, Latinos, and women are minorities in this sector, as expected. But they are significantly lower in number in this sector than in other sectors. The technology sector’s largest and most influential companies--Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft--all have demographics that approach a Ballard, Washington demographic. In other words, blacks and latinos are rarely seen (except in service jobs).

Of those four companies in 2018, the only one that exceeded 10% by combining blacks and latino hires together was Apple. And while that’s better than the other companies, it’s not by much. Also, it’s not great anyway as that combined number of blacks and latinos is just one percent higher than the 13% black employee shares only of the U.S. general population. For Apple, blacks consisted of 6% of its workforce. They were much less in other companies. Latinos at Apple only made up 8% of its workforce.

According to that Wired article, women are also underrepresented in the tech sector. In 2018 they made up around 20-23% depending on the company, definitely higher than the black and latino percentages. However, those numbers, including women with computer science majors at less than 20%, are below 1985’s women’s share of that major of above 35%. Interestingly, employees with Asian heritage took a disproportionate amount of jobs in those companies, from 35 to 52% when compared with the composition of the general U.S. population of 6.5%.

Focusing on more current (2019) statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics site (using two categories as examples), in the category of “Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing” (which encompasses some subsets of space manufacturing), blacks make up slightly less than 6% of that workforce. Latinos higher--around 11%. And women accounted for nearly 30% of employment share in that category.

For “Other telecommunications services” (which would include wireless communications, such as satellite broadcasting and relay) the numbers are a little higher (and maybe contain seeds of optimism), with black employment around 13% and latinos at nearly 14%. Women were at nearly a 31% share. I can guess why the telecommunications category percentage is higher than other technology categories, but that would not be helpful right now.

Why bring these statistics up?

Again, the space industry is a subset of the technology sector. If Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook--four companies which can select the cream of the hiring crop and have the resources to implement comprehensive hiring plans--are having difficulty with diversity within their ranks, then it’s very, very likely SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planet, Spire and other such “new space” companies are also not doing very well with diversity. The nature of these companies also makes it extremely difficult to gain insight into their diversity efforts.

The future of space should be exciting. And for me, it is, especially if the future includes everyone. But hiring trends in the technology sector don’t point to that inclusion, and it’s doubtful that the space industry’s newest entrants are exceeding the likes of Microsoft’s or Apple’s efforts. That puts a damper on a lot of the plans I see for space and raises questions.

Do Mars colonization or lunar gateway plans include more than a certain demographic’s point of view? Do those plans somehow discourage smaller percentages of genders and race to become involved? Are plans implemented by one point of view going to increase or decrease colonization survival when compared with plans from a wider experience base?

These questions aren’t intended to put anyone or any company, in a bad light. But they are prompted by data pointing to fundamental challenges and questionable assumptions about the space industry. Course corrections, as well as cognizant planning, can and should be implemented. These include hiring those “others” with the talent and capability to make a more exciting, profitable, survivable, and, especially, a more diverse space sector.

That would be a future to be excited about.