• Thu. Nov 26th, 2020

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Technology

Closing the Technology Opportunity Gap Takes Coordinated Effort

Top view close up of multi-ethnic group of people working together at cluttered wooden table with coffee cups, mugs and stationary items.


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The tech industry’s diversity problem is well documented, particularly among the giants.

Take Facebook, for example. From 2013 to 2018, its US employee base grew more than six times to 27,705, but by fewer than 1,000 Black people according to a USA Today analysis. In that five-year span, 3.7% of Facebook’s employees were black, up from 1%. And of course, Facebook’s not alone.

Many see that the problem goes beyond the hiring practices of tech giants. According to an Amazon-commissioned survey published this month, the most significant cause of concern is the gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities in underserved communities where Black and brown children live in higher numbers.

And it’s widening, they say. 

Some nonprofit organizations have taken on the challenge to ensure young people from underrepresented communities and backgrounds are ready to enter college, and then the workforce, equipped with technology skills and well-versed on the impact of forces like artificial intelligence (AI).

There will be job opportunities, for sure. The US market for computer science professionals is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow at twice the pace of the rest of the labor market between 2014 and 2024.

“Other organizations are teaching young people about AI but they’re doing it more from the standpoint of, ‘You need to learn how to code so that you can get a job in computer science or some other related field,'” said Ora D. Tanner, cofounder and chief learning officer for The AI Education Project, which teaches Black and brown high school-age students about the impact of AI technologies. “And that’s important, but we’re taking a totally different approach. There is no coding. There is no programming. We’re coming at it from the social aspects. And we want the students to have a conceptual understanding of AI.”

Embedding AI Into Underrepresented Communities

Getting a job in technology and access to education around topics like AI aren’t the only challenges for underrepresented students. In a report published in May by Alicja Pawluczuk examining the “big data divide,” researchers found that “young people who are socially disadvantaged (e.g., lower socio-economic class) or from underrepresented communities (e.g., young people with disabilities or from ethnic minorities) who are not yet digitally included are at greater risk of becoming targets of the unethical practices associated with the digital and big data economies.”

These types of practical societal implications of technology on underrepresented young people is exactly the kind of information The AI Education Project wants to provide. The nonprofit wants to educate students, especially those disproportionately impacted by AI and automation, with conceptual knowledge and skills they need to thrive.

And they want to equip them at the high school level, where they otherwise wouldn’t have exposure due to a lack of resources and money. Tanner said the foundation teaches basics of AI — how it works and what it looks like — but dives deeper into societal implications to demonstrate to students the impact of AI on industries like fashion design. 

“Here’s the data and here are all the different types of algorithms, and these are the predictions it’s making,” Tanner said, citing an example of the learning content. “So when they go out in their everyday life, they’ll remember learning about AI. We’re trying to get out of those abstract technological courses. … Case studies [are] something we show them a lot of.”

For instance, students get exposure to bias in the criminal justice system or the impact AI could have on job applications. “These are things they are going to be facing in the near term,” she said. “We’ll have them write a letter to the CEO of a company that makes an algorithm, or a judge or prosecuting attorney, about AI and the role they think it should play in their decisions.”

Related Article: What’s Under the Hood for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Technology?

Launching Tech Careers

Education is one part of the solution. The other is connecting tech companies with talent in underrepresented communities. One organization that helps place members of underrepresented groups in high-growth technology companies is Hack.Diversity. The Boston-based nonprofit recruits Black and Latinx students pursuing careers in software engineering, data analytics, information technology and UX/UI design with the goal of getting them jobs in Boston’s tech companies.

It also mentors and provides consulting on diversity and inclusion to employers so they can “tackle the challenge from both sides,” according to Angela Liu, Hack.Diversity director.

“We don’t recruit or identify talent out of MIT, Harvard or Northeastern, all these perceived elite institutions and private institutions,” Liu said. “We focus on highlighting talent coming up through community colleges, coming out of the boot camps. We don’t care where or how or when you got your technical foundation. We just care that you are able to meet the requirements of registration of the program. It’s essentially a career launchpad.”

Fellows Struggle With Professional Confidence

Those professional connections are a big part of Hack.Diversity’s eight-month fellowship. They work closely with black and Latinx students helping them understand things like job application rejections. One engineering student applied for 50 jobs without one offer before eventually landing a job at Wayfair and then Microsoft.

Many of the students that pass through Hack.Diversity just want their fair chance in the technology industry and have few avenues available to them.

“There are many talented African people but they don’t have opportunities to improve themselves,” Hack.Diversity fellow Abdoul Abdillahi wrote in a February Medium post. “I would like to travel across the continent of Africa and open their eyes to the possibilities that technology can provide them.”

Ana Paula Malimpensa, a Hack.Diversity fellow, wrote that as a woman, Latina and immigrant to the United States, she was underrepresented in class, leading her to struggle with professional confidence. “Working full time to fully pay for school while pursuing my associate’s full time was my biggest challenge,” wrote Malimpensa, who is pursuing her master’s degree at Boston University in computer science with a concentration in security. “I had to give up many things in my personal life, and still graduated with honors.”

Related Article: Embrace Diversity and Inclusion for an Improved Employee Experience

Fostering Organizational Change

Where people like Abdillahi and Malimpensa end up working is important to Hack.Diversity. Liu said the they aspire to help organizations “create organizational change” and avoid contributing to a “performative checkbox.”

Corporations pay the nonprofit group to help them with their diversity and inclusion practices in addition to the connections with young, up-and-coming talent. The social unrest and heightened calls for civic justice in the world have led companies to pay more attention to D&I, but Liu said her organization wants to help companies sustain the movement and energy.

“I think that if any silver lining comes out of this ridiculous year that we’re in, is that more and more companies as a reaction to the police brutality and racial injustice are seeing this as a responsibility,” Liu said. “That it’s not just a ‘nice to have’ but rather if you want to be a business leader, you’re thinking about the legacy you want to build for your organization. And how can you make this a sustained movement? How can it be continuous?”

Research from the Amazon study backs up that contention. Diversity, it found, is a must-have for business success, citing research from the National Academies of Sciences Engineering, and Medicine. Meanwhile, Hack.Diversity is working to break down barriers many organizations have addressing race. One of the biggest? Discomfort with the subject, which leads to avoidance. Before executives can make headway in this arena, Liu said, they need to resolve to break through their discomfort and hear and see truths from a variety of perspectives.

Calling on Governments, Companies to Close the Opportunity Gap

The nonprofits in this arena certainly can’t operate on their own. Hack.Diversity saw a big infusion of cash from venture capitalists and tech executives this year. Founder Jody Rose’s tweet about putting her 9- and 7-year-old to bed and discussing the fact that as black people they are “not equal” sparked an outpouring of support. It received nearly $50,000 in donations at that time in June. 

Donations like those are positive since, according to researchers in the Amazon study, long-term success in creating a diverse tech sector requires both the government and private companies to invest in STEM education for the next generation of workers, while also upskilling the current workforce.

“This two-pronged approach is necessary to address the skill shortages expected for 2030, as well as the lack of diversity we already face today in tech,” researchers wrote. “Furthermore, providing STEM education to children will never convert them into workers choosing a STEM career unless they see successful people who look like them.”

Education and information are also powerful tools. They are the backbone of the mission of the AI Education Project, which wants to expose students to injustices in technology and motivate them to create change for a better world around technology, whether that’s using tech and challenging biases or forging a successful career. 

“These are students who are being disproportionately impacted,” Tanner said. “A lot of times, they are at under-resourced high schools. They don’t have access to the computer science courses, robotics, labs or any information on AI. It’s just an opportunity gap, so we want to make sure we close that gap for them.”

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