There is a troubling lack of diversity in the tech sector. Our sector’s unwillingness to bring in prospective workers from non-traditional (non-degree) backgrounds or to hire people from underrepresented backgrounds -- women, people of colour, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community -- and to ensure that they are valued members of the team with upward workplace mobility, is leaving us extremely exposed. It’s also been leaving us without the fresh, new perspectives and talent we badly need to solve the most pressing tech issues of our day.
The tech sector has been deeply affected by the culmination of several factors that have - in part - been brewing for almost a decade. These factors are a growing skills gap that’s left employers struggling to fill essential roles (job vacancies across all sectors grew by 44% over the summer, compared to the three months prior, and 10% of all current open roles are now in the tech sector); an increase in the instances and sophistication of cyber-attacks on organisations; and a conspicuous lack of diversity within tech companies. One of these, though, is arguably the cause of the other two.
Unfortunately, the efforts we’ve seen from tech companies to hire a more diverse range of candidates have not been maintained. These initiatives seem to have either phased out or have emerged to be nothing more than surface-level attempts to fix what is a deeply ingrained industry bias.
This bias has an impact on far more than just the makeup of workplaces and the chances that anyone who isn’t a white man will rise through the ranks to tech leadership and is disastrous not only because it holds back potential talent, but also because it has a huge impact on the work being done. For instance, when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI), a lack of diverse backgrounds is perpetuating and creating systems that will ultimately cause more discrimination and bias. Algorithms that detect hate speech on social media are a good example of how destructive bias works in practice.
A piece on the discriminatory underbelly of the tech sector in Forbes stated that “Activists, educators, and tech experts are making the case that Instagram’s arbitrary definition of what is “safe” disproportionately impacts members of vulnerable communities. When their content is blocked from the feed, their ability to… benefit from Instagram’s digital economy -- is limited.” An AI environment that was truly diverse would ensure that the people training the machines and creating definitions are themselves diverse, and therefore are building tech with inclusivity baked in. However, to date, has the sector given women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and people from LGBTQ+ communities, and people from other disadvantaged backgrounds the right reasons to want to be here?
There is an urgent need for those in tech to create more equitable, incentivised, and welcoming environments in which new workers can thrive and contribute in meaningful ways - and in ways that equate to earning a decent wage. If the tech sector is to survive and withstand the pressures we are facing as a result of this global crisis, tech employers must do more than pay lip-service to inclusivity. That means giving those who have traditionally been blocked from accessing upskilling and educational opportunities, access to the resources --and skills-- they need to thrive in roles within high-demand job categories. Offering apprenticeships, employer-funded certifications, and hiring from outside the usual degree-holding pool of candidates, are among the best ways organisations can do that.
Tech’s hiring habits may not have changed much in the last decade or so, but the threats to security certainly have at an alarming rate. If we continue to hire only from a pool of candidates who have learned what they know about tech from textbooks and lectures, we will fail as a sector, losing out to adversaries in cybercrime who do know how to adapt and be resourceful. These people don’t care what degree someone holds. Apprenticeships and employer-funded certifications offer organisations the chance to bring people into the fold who can match theoretical knowledge with an even greater level of practical application and who can be scrappy in their approach to getting things done. Apprentices and people certified while on-the-job gain priceless skills like problem-solving, analytical ability, interpersonal communication, critical thinking, and so much more.
If people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can’t afford to travel or take time off from their job to attend an unpaid training program, what’s the point? The “earn-while-you-learn” apprenticeship model is a proven strategy for workplace inclusivity, and for giving more people a realistic on-ramp to a job. Apprenticeships and certifications also offer a built-in, long-term retention strategy for employers, in that people who know their employers have invested in their sustained success are likely to stick around much longer than those who feel disposable. (The “fish out of water” syndrome, in which a woman or person of colour comes in to work in an all-white, male workplace, can be a source of frustration, conflict, and even attrition, as they are often left to fend for themselves and can’t see themselves reflected in their organisation.)
A large number of apprenticeships include a mentor, which is among the pathway’s best features, and a benefit that can serve people from underrepresented demographics well. To solve both the skills gap and the confidence gap --the pervasive thinking that only certain types of people are valued, or that someone must be, for example, a maths or coding genius to get a job in tech-- we need a variety of entry-points and on-ramps into the tech workforce. That must include pathways that give people from diverse backgrounds the assuredness to understand that not only can they get a job, but that their perspectives and contributions are wanted and valued in tech.
Our sector has to change its thinking about how we hire*, who we hire, and the skills we value in the workplace. Let’s give the people who have the most to gain from careers in tech the incentives they need to join us. In truth, we need them more than they need us.
Graham Hunter, VP of Skills, CompTIA
*CompTIA actively supports diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the tech sector. We strive to advise organisations on the best practices for implementing DEI in training and employability initiatives, with a goal of growing a more inclusive tech workforce.