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Seaport protesters call for more inclusion in tech and biotech

Action for Equity, which organized the event, decries the underrepresentation of people of color in higher-paying jobs.

Protesters gathered outside Vertex Pharmaceuticals during a rally in the Seaport District Tuesday.
Protesters gathered outside Vertex Pharmaceuticals during a rally in the Seaport District Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A small group of demonstrators gathered in the rain Tuesday morning to call on Boston’s largely white technology and biotechnology industries to step up the hiring of Black people and other people of color.

Organizers of the rally, led by the group Action for Equity, declared on their website before the rally that “exclusion from good jobs is violence.”

They cited hiring statistics released by a technology trade group that estimated only about 5 percent of people working in technology in Massachusetts are Black. The report, by the Mass Technology Leadership Council, found that about 7 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

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“That is unacceptable,” said Mela Miles, who lives in Nubian Square and is president of Action for Equity. The group of about 30 demonstrators demanded that representatives of several large Boston companies meet with them to discuss how to step up hiring of people of color.

Miles said that underrepresentation in white-collar jobs such as those in tech is taking a toll during the COVID-19 pandemic as job losses pile up elsewhere, and essential workers face the choice of risking their health or losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, many people in office jobs are able to work from home in industries that are more stable.

“These industries ― tech, biotech, pharmaceuticals, and financial services ― historically have not hired people of color, especially Black people,” Miles added. Rallygoers also called for more inclusion of Indigenous people in those industries.

The demonstrators gathered in front of the Seaport offices of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a major employer in the biotech industry.

The company has published some statistics about its own record on hiring diversity, saying that about 32 percent of its workforce is “racially/ethnically diverse.” It did not describe how specific communities of color are represented at Vertex.

Demonstrators said a representative from Vertex had agreed to arrange a conversation with them, and that they had also secured an exchange with General Electric. A representative of State Street Corp. said that company also intends to reach out to event organizers. The group said they were pushing for a meeting with Liberty Mutual as well.

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In a statement, Vertex spokeswoman Heather Nichols said the company supports the cause of making more representative hires.

“We are committed to creating a diverse and inclusive culture at Vertex where all employees are respected and celebrated for who they are, and to hiring and developing Black people and people of color across our organization,” she said.

The technology industry has long been whiter and more male than the demographics of Massachusetts. There have been many high-profile promises and initiatives to hire and train people of color, but progress has been slow.

The Mass Technology Leadership Council report cited by the protesters actually was an improvement over prior years. Black employment in technology roles had risen from about 3,942 people in 2015, or 3 percent of the industry’s workforce, to 7,541 in 2018.

Tom Hopcroft, chief executive of the trade group, said the report was released as part of a five-year-old effort by his group to make the industry more representative and accountable.

He said tech companies often struggle to hire enough people to fuel their growth, so the full inclusion of people from underrepresented groups is crucial to the future of the field.

“It’s a social justice issue, and by the way, it’s also crucial for business,” Hopcroft said in an interview Tuesday.

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He added, in a statement, that “the tech sector has a responsibility to do more to make change at the company and at community level to ensure that tech in Massachusetts is more diverse, inclusive and socially just.”

At the demonstration Tuesday, Angel Howell, of the group New England United for Justice, said people in underrepresented communities should remember that jobs in technology are in high demand. He urged people in attendance to put pressure on schools to provide better instruction — but also to look for ways to teach themselves sought-after skills through online training and other programs .

“There’s positions available. There are a lot of people unemployed, at home, right now,” he said. “We need to lean on the tech industry, but we also need to activate ourselves and our own community.”


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.