More tech employees have been laid off in the first three months of 2023 than in all of 2022. Multiple layoff trackers show that over 150,000 employees have been laid off this year from more than 500 tech companies worldwide, with more than 89,000 workers let go in January 2023 alone.
Recent surveys have found that women, people of color, disabled workers, and other marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by mass layoffs in tech despite being underrepresented in the industry. According to Harvard Business Review, companies rely heavily on position and tenure when deciding on cuts, which translates to wiping out “most or all of the gains they’ve made in diversity.”
Men hold nearly 75% of tech jobs, and approximately 80% of executive positions in tech companies are held by white male workers. These statistics are linked to data showing that 40% of companies don’t even consider women candidates for interviews. LGBTQIA+ and disabled workers also face significant discrimination and barriers to working in tech.
A 2020 Stack Overflow survey of 65,000 developers found that only 1% identified as trans. When it came to sexual orientation, over 92% identified as heterosexual. In terms of disability, less than 2% of developers said they were physically disabled, while 15% reported “anxiety, mood, or emotional disorders.” These demographics shift further toward white, cis, able-bodied norms during layoffs because marginalized groups represent most of those who lose their jobs.
Dan, who has asked to use a pseudonym to protect his privacy, is a queer, Asian tech worker from New York. They were an editor for Adweek when they were laid off without warning in January after being promised during a previous round of layoffs that their team wouldn’t be affected by any future downsizing.
“The organization was largely white, and the most recently hired folks, who happened to be women and people of color, were laid off,” they said. “Senior-level people of color were laid off too, but the white executives were unaffected.”
Stories like Dan’s are common in the tech industry.
Streaming giant Netflix faced criticism in recent years for its treatment of marginalized workers. Last year the company laid off 150 full-time employees and several contractors. A Protocol report found that women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ employees were overwhelmingly among those who lost their jobs. This was similar to last year’s layoffs at Netflix’s entertainment blog Tudum, where the company hired and fired journalists of color within a year.
A similar situation has unfolded at Twitter, where Elon Musk dissolved the company’s employee resource groups and accessibility teams, a move that primarily affected marginalized groups.
Women laid off at Twitter filed a class action lawsuit after the company fired 63% of women in engineering roles compared to 48% of men. The gender representation at the tech giant was already unequal, and the same pattern has played out at other tech companies.
What happened to all the DEI commitments?
Many companies vowed to increase representation across their workforce in 2020, but these “diversity” hires are now the first to be fired as the business cycle weakens, according to Sunday Helmerich, a consultant and facilitator at the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training and consulting company The Courage Collective.
“Minorities are vulnerable in the recent tech layoffs because they were disproportionately hired into positions viewed as less vital to the business success,” Helmerich said.
Among the world’s largest 500 companies, 10.9% of senior executives are women. In contrast, women hold 52% of entry-level or “non-essential” roles in finance, which are the first to be cut during layoffs.
“Identity-influenced layoffs are like competency gaslighting,” said Daniel Juday, a trainer and coach who focuses on DEI. “You’re supposed to believe it was a neutral decision based on objective factors, but there’s more to it.”
This is one of the reasons Juday said that so many people from historically excluded populations express high levels of impostor syndrome.
“It’s not because they don’t have what it takes to do the job; it’s that they’ve been told, in this case through a layoff, that they just can’t quite hack it like the others,” Juday said.
Nina McCollum, who worked with a California-based HR tech company, has experienced layoffs three times in her career.
“I don’t understand why they chose me,” she said. “I’m a top candidate for companies who are looking to improve DEI as I’m older, disabled, and LGBTQ+—and I did awesome work and really embraced the company culture.”
McCollum explained that companies find it easier to “make a case” on paper as to why a woman should be laid off over a man.
“Many women are caregivers, either to children, disabled family members, aging parents, or perhaps several of these groups,” McCollum said. “As a result, there may be unconscious bias causing others to perceive them as missing more work for ‘family’ reasons versus just taking time off for leisure. This could also be true for people who are disabled and may need to take more time off work than a non-disabled person.”
Affinity bias—when people more positively evaluate others who look like them—is also at play, said Stan Kimer, IBM’s former LGBTQIA+ diversity manager and the current president of Total Engagement Consulting. “Since the tech industry is primarily led by white men, white men are often more favorably judged,” he said.
But the problem doesn’t end with disproportionate layoffs.
Minority workers struggle to find work after layoffs
Marginalized groups are already underrepresented in tech and face significant barriers to education and employment.
“They may face the same biases in the interviewing and hiring processes as they did in being laid off,” Kimer said. “In addition, the baggage or stigma of being laid off can erode a person’s self-esteem as well as raise questions about the person’s skills with hiring managers who may question if performance was a factor in being laid off.”
Along with gender and racial discrimination, lack of accommodations for disabled workers can also push people out of the industry.
Erin, a tech worker who was laid off from a Chicago title company in November 2022, still hasn’t found work. Erin is hard of hearing and is using a pseudonym to protect her identity. She said she reads people’s lips, so tasks like talking on the phone are difficult.
“I usually disclose my disability when they mention answering the phone. I do not want to be dishonest, but that throws people off during interviews,” she said.
Discrimination and ableism also deepen the economic inequities disabled people already experience.
“I can’t just go out and get a job at Target or the grocery store because I am unable to stand for long periods of time due to multiple back conditions,” McCollum said.
Technology has made it easier for disabled workers like McCollum to work from home, but many tech companies insist on hiring people who will come to the office at least a few days a week. This requirement automatically excludes many disabled employees.
Because of this, McCollum relies on food stamps and other assistance when she cannot find work or pay her bills.
“From a societal perspective, there are certain groups that have been able to, and subsidized to, build generational wealth,” Juday said. “When someone from one of these groups gets laid off, there is no doubt it is a negative experience, but there is also a soft landing place as there’s typically money for housing expenses and groceries, and family and friends can aid financially.”
In marginalized populations, though, that cushion often doesn’t exist, and, according to Juday, “many in these communities are closer to hunger and houselessness because of it.”