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Racial Tech Gap: Causes and Solutions for a Diverse Future


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Here is a fact: if you are not white, you are much less likely to enter a tech field for your career. This article seeks to examine the multi-dimensional precedent for this, the impact on minorities, white people, and on the industry, and the ways we can support a diversified tech-ready workforce.

Before diving in, I would like to take a moment to list my qualifications. As a white woman with degrees in qualitative research and the humanities, I understand if you read my point of view with some degree of skepticism. While I personally have not experienced racism in this lifetime, my strength as a writer lies in my ability to bear witness to the lived experiences of others. And I have borne rather a lot of witness to the lived experiences of minority students over the past thirteen years.

First, I taught middle-school English for four years in the South Bronx, NY, during the recession years. For those of you unfamiliar with the anatomy of New York City, the “South Bronx” is code for all sorts of pejorative connotations, like “ghetto,” “poor,” “the hood,” “projects,” “violence,” and “crime,” to name a few. Despite seeing, yes, the ill-effects of poverty and trauma in my students, I noticed a vibrant type of brilliance in their neighborhoods and communal networks. My students as a whole were smart, resourceful, adaptable, funny, and hyper-fluent in reading people and group energy.

They hailed from cultures and families that could act as a powerful and positive role-models for the linear, hard-nosed approach to work, life, worth, and family that is so prevalent in mainstream American culture. My students created a communal feel in the classrooms and schools, calling other kids “brother” or “cousin” freely, and calling adults “aunt” or “uncle” without concerning themselves with actual blood relationships. It was like they were willing to claim anyone in their orbit as family. This unconcern with delineations of blood and formal lineage created networks of care, accountability, and support far beyond their immediate, nuclear homes.

I have also worked at College Track, an educational non-profit committed to supporting first-generation students through college. While there, I worked with students who displayed uncompromising brilliance and dedication to their path to-and-through higher ed. It was with a mixture of pride, awe, and humility that I watched my students being accepted into colleges I myself had been rejected from years earlier.

Lastly, I am a lead consultant with Triad Diversity, a small company dedicated to helping diversify the workforce. We specialize in helping companies take an asset-based approach to creating diverse channels of influence within an organization.1

My point here is that, while I am certainly a white woman living with all of the attendant privilege of that position, I have spent many, many years immersing myself in places, environments, and in the company of people who have helped me gain a larger, clearer, multi-dimensional view of systems of racism and the impact they have on individuals and our society. I am rabidly passionate about using my privilege productively — that is, working toward eradicating it entirely.

The “Tech Gap” Defined

Corey Edwards Director of the Northwest Region for Western Governors University, defines the “tech gap” in terms of representation. He says, “it starts and ends with representation. We just don’t have a representative amount of diverse talent in tech positions that mirror what our communities and populations2 look like.” In other words, while Black and Latinx people comprise 32% of the US population, they represent under 10% of the workforce in the top three tech giants: Google, Apple, and Facebook.3

Therefore, for the purpose of this article, I am defining the “tech gap” as the proportional underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields, which includes college majors and careers.

A Partial Explanation of the Tech Gap’s Origin

Corey Edwards is an expert in the realm of higher ed, supporting minority students in using college as a means to gain experience in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). As a former educator with extensive experience in the K-12 world, I can offer an origin story of the tech gap that may help explain why so few minority students are pursuing STEM fields in the first place.

I noticed that, in high-needs schools, STEM subjects were largely taught in ways that were dry, mechanical, and undifferentiated to student interest. Unlike the humanities, which often allowed for creativity, projects, and student-choice, the STEM subjects were often taught “by-the-book,” with very little room for real-world application and imagination.

I want to be clear that this is NOT an indictment of STEM teachers, who often go above and beyond to infuse their lessons with creativity and a desire to meet student learning needs. Rather I see it as an issue with the way we view and implement curriculum. Teachers, especially in high-needs schools, experience a phenomenon that Dr. Michael Apple calls “intensification,” which essentially means that we keep teachers so overwhelmed with expectations, deadlines, and requirements that their focus naturally narrows to “covering the standards” and “getting through the curriculum.”

As a curriculum lead and teacher coach for Eagle County Schools, I heard over and over again the distress of STEM teachers who were walking an impossible line of teaching the required “facts” while also trying to meet the learning needs of their students (oh, and support them emotionally, and talk to parents every night, and track data, and uphold standards of behavior, and somewhere, way down on the list, eat and use the bathroom). Therefore, especially in the STEM fields, our educational system confuses “rigor” with “an avalanche of content most of which can just be looked up on google at this point.”

In conducting my doctoral research on burnout, it became very clear that an educator’s freedom to teach a subject in a way that is congruent with their values and philosophy had a direct impact on student engagement, and thus student achievement in that subject. Teachers with the support and freedom to enhance student empowerment and create safe spaces for exploration, creativity, and failure were happier, more fulfilled, and more likely to stay in the profession despite the normal emotional and psychological wear-and-tear of being responsible for the education and well-being of many kids.

In other words, “student achievement” in these types of schools and classrooms was defined holistically. Instead of wrapping a student’s entire worth into a single scaled score derived from a annual test that reflected, at best, a dubious level of validity and reliability4, these schools and teachers defined student achievement on multiple dimensions, including social-emotional wellness, executive functioning skills, and the development of pro-social behaviors.

While there are many high-needs schools that make a direct effort to protect students and teachers from the crippling bureaucracy of testing, most high-needs schools (which serve primarily minority students) don’t feel that they have the luxury. Teachers and administrators in most high-needs school environments are under an astronomical amount of pressure to “raise test scores,” which puts them under intense scrutiny for how they choose to spend their time in the classroom. Activities that can’t be directly linked to test prep, which includes activities that are artistic, aesthetic, beautiful, open-ended, and creative, are largely considered frivolous and unimportant. To this point, consider Jonathan Kozol’s description of the “multi-modal pumpkin.”5 An elementary teacher who wanted to recreate the fun and camaraderie of halloween pumpkin carving in her classroom had to justify this innocent, enjoyable, and engaging activity by mapping it onto the New York state standards. Thus he created the “multimodal pumpkin,” a highly-detailed lesson plan that justified pumpkin carving to the powers that be. These are tedious hoops to jump through just to introduce a touch of lightness in the classroom — hoops which, largely, are not present in wealthier, white schools.

It is worth noting that high-impact teaching strategies that accelerate student learning are known and have been widely studied. The strategies that work, and work tremendously, are largely based on student ownership and student-teacher relationships, including clear, timely, and thoughtful feedback, student metacognition, and a shared belief in student efficacy.6 “Test prep” appears nowhere on that list. Neither do “worksheets.” For that matter, “testing” as a whole shows up exactly nowhere.

Unfortunately, the teachers—and especially STEM teachers—in high-needs schools are kept in a constant state of overwhelm. As a result, they have very little energy to get creative, fun, and open-ended with their lessons, no matter how much they desire to (especially if they have to expend 90% of that energy justifying their actions to the state- see the Multi-Modal Pumpkin). Teacher and student engagement are directly linked. As a result of the enormous pressure put on these teachers to cover standards at any cost, students in these schools often experience STEM subjects as dry, uncreative, rote, and, in a word, boring.

The irony is that this “test or die” approach isn’t “working,” not in the traditional sense. Students from high-needs schools consistently come into college “behind” in content knowledge and skills in the STEM fields. Now, either we can conclude that these kids just don’t have what it takes to be mathematicians, engineers, and scientists (clearly not true), or we can take a good, hard look at the way our school systems are failing to nurture and encourage creativity, expansiveness, and thriving in STEM subjects for these students.

If something isn’t working (test prep), then doing it harder, faster, and in a more intense way will simply show you accelerated failure rates. If I have terrible running form, running faster won’t fix my shin splints. The issue with the Tech Gap has nothing to do with the intensity of the curriculum or a lack of student potential—it’s all in the way we approach student learning, feverishly and from a mindset of scarcity, lack, and deficit. This gets transmitted to our students, who, naturally, begin to view STEM subjects as uninspiring.

Impact of the Tech Gap

I could write a whole series of articles about how to make our schools more nurturing for humanity, heart, creativity, and joy, but this article specifically addresses the way that inequity in our schools and society expresses as the tech gap. I’d like to spend a moment discussing the impact of the tech gap on minorities, on companies, on industries, and on consumers.

I’m reminded of a How I Built This interview with Tristan Walker, founder of Walker and Company, a company that specifically makes razors for black men. Tristan said that throughout his life he absolutely hated shaving his face because traditional razors would always leave painful, inflamed bumps on his skin. This was because, as a black man, the texture of his facial hair was qualitatively different than that of white men. Who, however, was designing the razors? White men. No beef on white men, but they can’t solve problems they don’t know about (or aren’t invested in).

Drawing from his experience, Tristan launched Bevel, a company that was eventually bought by Procter and Gamble. Bevel’s specialty was a razor that catered specifically to black men.

People are motivated to solve problems that have impacted them personally, and “problem-solving” is the engine of successful business. If industries make an intentional effort to diversify their hires (and then actually allow space and support for employees to freely innovate), they have access to perspectives, solutions, and unprecedented ideas that would otherwise be out of reach. This also helps consumers, as consumers get the benefit of wider representation in the companies that dominate the market.

Solutions to the Tech Gap

Corey Edwards is a key player in solving a persistent problem for a minority consumer base. As the Director of the Northwest Region for Wester Governer’s University (WGU), a non-profit “with a mission to expand access to high-quality, affordable higher education, online,”7 WGU understands that the traditional, in-person, immersive approach to earning an advanced degree doesn’t work for everyone, and especially for minority populations. In response, WGU, which exists entirely online, offers a flexible, competency-based evaluation approach to learning and assessment. This means that learners move through a progression of learning standards at their own pace. Their a priori knowledge is rewarded. Instead of a rote, one-size/pace-fits-all curriculum, learners can self-differentiate their learning by quickly moving through topics they’re already familiar with and spending more time on learning new things.

Corey said, “adults can bring prior work experiences to the table and work at their own pace. Often they complete courses faster than in a traditional model. They spend time on stuff they don’t know as opposed to stuff they’ve already learned. They get to move at their own pace and move quicker. This saves money and time.”

A career with WGU was appealing to Edwards because it addressed the exact issues that he himself struggled with when looking to earn his advanced degrees. “Life happened, and I just couldn’t take four straight years to focus on school,” Edwards said. “I like working for WGU because I can see the impact. It helps people fit life around school as opposed to fitting school around life.”

In providing multiple points of entry for minorities in higher ed, WGU also works directly to address the tech gap. Students graduating from WGU will earn an accredited, advanced degree in a practical, high-demand field like information technology, healthcare, business, and teaching. This broadens the field of qualified candidates for fields that are begging for an infusion of energy, new ideas, and radical innovation to meet the needs of a diverse consumer base.

With issues like the tech gap, which can sometimes feel abstract, I like to offer a few ideas of actions you can take, even if the action is as simple (and profound) as allowing yourself to see the world a little bit differently than before.

One very concrete solution, according to Edwards, is to examine the hiring practices at your workplace. He recommends that, if you’re a hiring manager, you prioritize what he calls “diverse interviews.” He said, “if you’re trying to transform your workplace, commit to a mix of Hispanic and Black folks in your interview process. Make sure you have at least one minority in your final three candidates.” He went on to say, “you may not be the decision-making leader in your organization, but you can still make a difference. When given opportunities, when people ask what can be done better, speak up.”

Some people express concern about others “taking their jobs” in a company. Edwards recommends that we think of hiring through the practice of “forecasting.” He advises that companies look at the directions in which they’re expanding so that they can define new roles. That way they can plan in advance for an equitable approach to hiring.

This same strategy works with examining the roles of people who are planning an imminent retirement.

I would like to add that, on a deeper level, anyone concerned about “others” “taking their jobs” is unconsciously projecting a mindset of entitlement and scarcity into the world. This approach assumes, one, that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and two, that the existing jobs seem already to “belong” to a certain sector of the population. Neither of these ideas are true. Imagine instead taking an abundance mindset toward employment—one that joyfully and generously prioritizes making sure that everyone is well-suited to their role, and that each role fulfills an expansive and critical purpose in the larger trajectory of the company? That is a recipe for success, especially if we want to flourish with the markets we’re stepping into.8

Edward’s last piece of advice is for companies to “create a diverse pool to choose from.” He says to, “Think about developing pipeline relationships with your local universities. The first place people often think to recruit Blacks is HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).” He went on, “but HBCU’s only graduate 230,000 students [per year]. There are 2.5 million minority students graduating from other universities. So look locally and develop those relationships.”

However, I’ve found that it’s not enough to hire a diverse workforce; we also need to support that workforce to succeed and flourish. In my work with Triad Diversity, I work with leaders to widen channels of communication within an organization. This is because I so often find that their communication structures and methodologies do not allow for the company to nurture, capture, and act on innovation. This leaves vast stores of untapped potential in the heads and hearts of capable, willing, and creative employees. Hiring a diverse workforce that doesn’t get to fully express their perspectives and ideas is like having a giant treasure chest that you never open and maybe don’t even know about.

The last, and perhaps most profound thing we can do is to learn to catch ourselves when we categorize or think about minority workers and students through a deficit lens. I want to be clear that no one intentionally does this (or, very few people do). The whole idea behind unconscious bias is that it is unconscious. We have been conditioned within these linear systems to define “success” in a very narrow way: money, degrees, test scores, job title, etc. Deficit is even built into our vocabulary (i.e. those kids are “behind” in math). Righting the tech gap will happen when we begin to see the inherent worth, practicality, business sense, and fulfillment that comes with exposing our companies and ourselves to a rich and diverse mix of people. Committing to a diverse workforce isn’t doing anyone a “favor”; it’s a huge, dynamic gift that we give ourselves and our organizations.

Finally, Edwards advises us to be patient and hopeful. “It won’t be one person who is going to solve this thing,” he said. “It’s going to take intentionality and teamwork from our whole community.”

 

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