A blueprint to bring more diversity and women of colour to technology
By Stephen Law
Companies around the world seek diversity at all levels of their workforce, but few know how to achieve it.
Two years ago, our technology training nonprofit, NPower, with operations in the US and Canada, set out to identify some of the obstacles women of colour face in launching new careers in technology. We wanted to hear directly from women of colour about their experiences during our program and upon entering the technology workforce. At the same time, we also wanted to understand the ways in which other training providers, investors, policy makers and the business community could improve efforts to recruit and retain young women of colour.
As part of our research, we interviewed and surveyed more than 1,000 tech executives, advisors and program alumni to quantify and qualify how the tech industry can address many of the barriers Black and Latinx women face. These findings are outlined in a ground-breaking report, Breaking Through, Rising Up: Strategies for Propelling Women of Colour in Technology, and sheds new light on a systemic problem.
For example, 24 percent of female alumni told our researchers they worry gender bias will impede their future success. It’s a startling number, especially since only 1 percent of men said it applied to them. Women of colour were also three-times more likely to feel they were discriminated against compared to their male colleagues. And the roles women of colour were assigned were equally disturbing. Women of colour were 35 percent more likely to be assigned administrative tasks, like note taking in a meeting, compared to 29 percent of males.
To unleash the full potential of women of colour in the technology talent pipeline, more systemic reforms are needed in both educational and career pathways. Here are some of the strategies outlined in our report.
1) Shift the mindset to include individuals from nontraditional educational backgrounds as part of the talent pipeline. Invest in the support needed to recruit and retain this talent.
A college degree remains the default credential for entry into the white-collar workforce. Yet relying solely on individuals with college degrees will not address the demand to fill technology positions or the imperative to diversify the sector. Companies need to shift their mindset—to focus on skills and competencies, rather than credentials, when recruiting and hiring. They also need to prioritize characteristics, such as determination and the ability to learn, that contribute to long-term success in the workplace.
2) Foster inclusive leadership and establish organizational accountability metrics.
Most companies that have a solid reputation for gender inclusion typically have a senior champion in the organization advocating for shifts in policies and practices. While this is important, for sustainable and long-lasting shifts in culture to occur, a company’s senior leadership team should model inclusion, along with steps to ensure accountability.
Inclusive leadership also includes the willingness to establish and report on accountability metrics. What are a company’s goals around a diverse workforce and inclusive climate? What are the steps it will take to achieve those goals? What is the budget and what are the resources committed to getting there? Accountability metrics help ensure that there is a commitment to systematically shifting the culture, rather than one-off or inconsistent attempts to foster inclusion.
3) Encourage authenticity and bringing one’s whole self to the workplace.
As women who are new to the corporate environment and/or working on predominately male teams, it’s no wonder that women in our interviews regularly referenced feelings of inadequacy or uncertainty about fitting into the work environment—the imposter syndrome. Research shows that a third to nearly a half of people of color compromise their authenticity to fit into the work environment (Hewlett, Jackson, & Cose, 2012).
Companies can foster a more inclusive culture by creating opportunities for their employees to understand their bias and how they can work to reduce their biases. While companies often provide one-off trainings, ongoing opportunities to bring awareness to these issues can often be more impactful.
4) Ensure opportunities for women of colour to tap into company networks and get exposure for their work.
A major component of inclusion is having the support needed to navigate the workplace. This is especially critical for women of color who come from nontraditional backgrounds. Creating opportunities for women of colour to network can take multiple forms and be formal or informal.
Formal supports include employee resource groups or other affinity groups. Role models, mentors, and sponsors can also be especially critical levers of success for women. Senior women in tech encourage those starting out to have multiple mentors who can provide advice and support on different aspects of work, as it is unrealistic to expect a single mentor to be able to address all the needs and questions that might surface.
5) Promote career advancement and training and build a learning culture.
Women of color are more likely to leave the technology career path than other demographic groups—for a host of reasons, including job dissatisfaction, lack of advancement opportunities, and caregiving responsibilities. For women of color coming from technology training programs, these dynamics can be exacerbated by the fact that many are offered contract or part-time entry-level positions that do not come with benefits. To mitigate this dynamic, employers should have conversations up front with training providers about what will be required to convert internships into full-time hires, while also providing graduates with guidance and support to advance in their careers.
The career paths that are available to women of colour from low to moderate income backgrounds in technology are not always linear, clear, or evident. As women of colour enter and flourish in technology careers, their work not only buoys their own life prospects, but also contributes to innovation and prosperity for companies and for society at large.
Although larger companies may have the resources and capacity to create formal supports, smaller or mid-sized companies may not. These companies can still foster networking by connecting women of colour to informal resources within the company or industry wide networking opportunities outside of the organization to ensure that there are supports in place.
About the Author
Bertina Ceccarelli is the Chief Executive Officer of NPower – a nonprofit technology training program creates pathways to economic prosperity by launching digital careers for military veterans and young adults from underserved communities. NPower currently operates throughout North America including Toronto and GTA, Calgary, as well as New York, Texas, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Missouri and Michigan.
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