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5 ways to close the tech industry’s race gap through education


How can technology and innovation become more inclusive? According to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 83% of tech executives are white. Meanwhile, at Apple, 6% of the tech workforce last year was Black. At Google, just under one-quarter of interns were Black and Latinx, and 5.5% of new hires were Black.

On Thursday, March 11, MIT Sloan hosted “Inclusive Education: Building a Strong & Diverse Workforce in America” to discuss the gap.a former Berkshire Bank executive vice president and current MIT Sloan lecturer who focuses on inclusion in the innovation economy, moderated the conversation. Aisha Francis, CEO of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, and Michael and Donna Dawson of Innovators for Purpose in Cambridge, Massachusetts joined her.

Here are five of their suggestions for how leaders in both the public and private sectors can cultivate diversity in the tech workforce.

Stop the tech stigma early

Michael and Donna Dawson work with diverse teenagers in hands-on learning labs focusing on tech and innovation challenges with real-world clients, such as the Cambridge Public Library and MIT.

Many students initially presume a career in tech is out of reach.

“In Kendall Square [in Cambridge] you walk by Microsoft, Google, Novartis, Biogen, Pfizer, Moderna, and MIT. It’s just amazing. But to many students, especially students from underrepresented groups, those are simply names on a building. They have no understanding of how their personal passions connect with the work that’s being conducted in those businesses,” Michael Dawson said.

Part of the problem is a lack of what the Dawsons call “dinner table capital” among underrepresented youth. Because their parents might not be in tech, they don’t talk about it at home. This is reinforced by the broader notion that math is untouchable.

“I think there’s a stigma attached to math, like, ‘Ooh, you’ve got to be really smart for that,’” Donna Dawson said. “If you struggle as a young person in elementary school, I think you kind of feel like you’re not capable. If something makes you feel that way, you’re not going to engage with it.”

She encourages parents — even those who aren’t math-oriented — to expose young people to STEM in creative ways, such as through cooking or baking. She calls this concept “backdoor learning.” Meanwhile, schools can inspire future leaders by making STEM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math — approachable for science-minded and arts-minded kids alike with real-world lessons.

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“Right now, everything is segmented,” Michael Dawson said. “You have science, you have math, you have English, you have social studies. If it were more integrated, you could accomplish a lot more. And if it’s integrated and it’s relevant, students are going to be more interested, such as when they see how science and math relate to social studies.”

Educators should engage students in multi-disciplinary projects that reflect reality. Innovators for Purpose recently concluded a student-led project in the wake of George Floyd’s killing that infused social studies with STEM, exploring Jim Crow, redlining, and slavery. It resulted in an augmented reality installation, “This Should Not Be,” on exhibit at the Cambridge Public Library lawn.

Make role models matter

Early education can only go so far. Disadvantaged students need tech role models who can lay out a path forward and show how interests can actually evolve into a career.

“A few years ago, we recruited for our program at one of the middle schools in Cambridge,” Michael Dawson said. “We asked students, ‘How many of you want to work at Google, Microsoft, Novartis?’ No hands went up. And then one student said, ‘I really enjoy playing Microsoft games, but I have no interest in working there.' Until these students have role models and mentors in their lives who can make this real for them, it doesn’t really matter how high of a quality program you have, because they’re not going to be interested in participating.”

Address the cost and realities of higher education

At the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, almost 60% of students are first-generation college students. Francis noted that more than half of Boston’s white population has a higher education degree.

“Only 24% of Boston’s Black and Latinx population have a college degree. That’s not for lack of interest. It has everything to do with systemic racism and systemic barriers,” she said.

Francis has pushed for policies to make it easier for minorities to attend college, such as extending the deadline for Massachusetts’ MASSGrant financial assistance programs into the summer, reflecting realistic timelines for many students.

“College-goers or aspiring college-goers who don’t really have anyone in their lives helping them figure out the pathway typically don’t apply until June, July, August,” she said.

“When you are a campus that is committed to inclusion … you adjust to meet the needs of those who you want to serve — and I think for too long, the onus has been placed on people of color to adjust to meet the culture,” Francis said. "If we could start to meet people where they are, knock down barriers of cost by making money for education more available, and then making sure that we are responsive to people’s family and work commitments, we’ll start to get a much more equitable and inclusive innovation economy.”

Hire based on skillset

Francis also urged companies to diversify through hiring based on skillset rather than degree or years of identical work experience. She pointed to Opportunity@Work’s STARS (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) concept as a successful model, which tracks skilled workers into jobs they might otherwise never access due to prerequisites like certain degrees.

“I think those are some strategies and tactics that could be employed to make it more likely that diverse candidates, or candidates who might not have work experience outside of customer service or other things like that, can use their transferable skills to get into the job, into the field, for which they’ve been trained,” she said.

In New York state, for example, a new “pathways pledge” requires participating employers to report quarterly on their revamped hiring processes, which includes promising to shift to a skills-based hiring model as appropriate and removing high school or post-secondary degree requirements for new hires. Companies including Google already participate.

In Boston, tech nonprofit Resilient Coders provides hands-on training for people of color through 20-week coding bootcamps and demo days attended by top employers which serve as recruitment opportunities. Graduates have gone on to The Boston Globe and Wayfair.

Deliberately broaden your horizons

Francis had a simple solution for breaking down barriers: Get to know your fellow students and colleagues as people. Assess and diversify your networks. Find common ground.

“You have to be willing to take risks. And, you know, there are going to be awkward moments. But I think you can approach each other on the level of humanity. Sometimes it’s establishing relationships based on hobbies or common interests, not based on gender and ethnicity,” she said. “It’s little moments. It’s, ‘Hey, how’s your family? Who are you as a human being?’ Relationships start there.”

She urged people to call out unconsciously biased behavior when they witness it, too, even if it initially feels uncomfortable. Francis terms this “calling out with compassion.” She uses two techniques. “Calling in” is a softer approach: “I want to invite you to rethink that because it landed in a way that you might not have intended. Here’s how I heard it.”

Calling out is firmer: “Listen, that’s the third time you said that phrase. I’ve explained to you before that it’s offensive to me. Stop doing it.”

Francis urged workplaces to normalize these tactics as essential, progressive, standardized parts of workplace interaction.

“It might sound corny, but if you have a culture where you use calling in and calling out, you can just say, ‘Listen, I'm calling you in,’ or ‘I'm calling you out.’ Those kinds of approaches have to be part of the norms of a classroom or of a workplace or a team — it’s helpful if people have been exposed to them and buy into the concept of using them,” she said.

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