Organizations that want to make their technology teams more reflective of the populace still face a quandary -- finding diverse talent to hire. Scholarships have the potential to create more pathways for a broader spectrum of people to develop in-demand tech skills that enterprises want.
Early this month, technology and business training company O’Reilly Media introduced a scholarship program to give 500 people from underrepresented groups one year of free access to online curriculum. The intent, like programs from other groups such as Flatiron School, is to broaden access to tech skills and subsequently encourage more diverse and inclusive landscape of professionals and leaders.
Adam Enbar, CEO of the Flatiron School, says his organization has strived to see 50-50 gender parity in its programs, but there has been room for growth in this area. “We launched our online in 2017 and we did an outcomes report in 2018. When the data came out, only about 30% of our students were women,” he says. While that might have sufficed for other computer science programs, Enbar says Flatiron School in response launched the Women Take Tech program, which offers scholarships up to $3,000 for women to enroll in its classes.
“It started with Birchbox as our first partner then expanded to other partners like Karlie Kloss, Citigroup, and all kinds of companies,” he says. Within a couple of years of the launch of Women Take Tech, Enbar says women made up more than 50% of Flatiron School’s students. “We saw it pretty plainly that if you actually work on this, you can move the needle,” he says. “You can change the statistics and change the ratio. It’s not a thing that just happens on its own.”
Over the years, Flatiron School has run a number of programs to help open up pathways for diverse groups to pursue careers in technology. Those efforts included web development training for immigrants and software development training for refugees.
The issue of gender and racial disparity in tech jobs and leadership roles begins at a much earlier age than when people enter the workforce, Enbar says, such as when young girls are not as encouraged as boys to pursue STEM education and related career opportunities. He says recent activism efforts, for racial justice for example, have elevated awareness of the need for tangible change. “It’s not good enough to think about diversity; we have to think about inclusion as well,” Enbar says.
Making noise about improving diversity and inclusivity can make a difference, he says, citing momentum that has been building in recent years to improve gender parity in tech. “There are now some schools where women exceed men in majoring in computer science,” Enbar says. “Why are there protests in the street for Black Lives Matter? Why is International Women’s Day an important day to share your voice? Because making this stuff known really matters.”
Many companies are thinking about diversity, he says, with some concrete results being realized. “In our jobs report, our employment rate for women was higher than for men,” Enbar says. “Our average starting salary higher for women than for men.” That stemmed from companies taking active roles diversifying their teams and seeking out more diverse graduates, but there is more work to be done, he says.
“The next phase where companies need help is, ‘How do you not just have a diverse workforce but how do you make it inclusive?’” Enbar asks. “How do you make the people who come in feel comfortable and productive?” Flatiron School launched the John Stanley Ford Fellowship, which speaks to the advancement of Black tech professionals through apprenticeships and sponsorships. “It goes beyond just hiring people, to investing in making people successful,” he says, “giving them the tools and support needed so they can find their own voice.”
Flatiron School has been designing programs and partnerships to go beyond diversifying their staff by also creating space for them to thrive, Enbar says. “We ask for a commitment to hire people, give them an internal mentor, allow them to have a mentor from Flatiron, and to join ongoing professional education because that is what has long-term impact,” he says.
Laura Baldwin, president of O’Reilly Media, says when her organization previously introduced inclusivity and diversity scholarships for its in-person sessions, companies such as Microsoft and Google sponsored some of those scholarships. She hopes to see similar underwriting support with the latest scholarship program. “What we’re looking to do now is go back to large sponsor companies to do that same kind of sponsorship online through our digital platforms,” she says. “If we can make that happen, that 500 number may grow even larger.”
One hurdle to diversifying the technology community is the sector is often regarded as a male-oriented space, Baldwin says. On top of that, many organizations are now scrambling to make new hires to change their demographics. “Hiring diverse talent is very difficult to do in tech,” she says. “Everyone’s trying to do it. There’s automatic competition to try to bring those voices to market.”
Part of addressing such hurdles is finding the talent and showing them there is a place for them in technology. “There are a lot of great organizations,” Baldwin says. “I think about Code 2040, Black Girls Code, or the Posse Foundation that are working to help the younger generation to know there is a place for them in technology.”
She says proactive recruiting efforts must continue if diverse talent does not apply for roles with organizations. “It’s not just about people coming to us, we have to outreach. We have to bring it forward,” Baldwin says. “We can’t just wait for those communities to come to us. We have to go find them.”
There are ways for companies to make tangible changes on diversity and inclusivity by making it part of the entire organization’s mission, she says. There can be a tendency for organizations to put the responsibility to improve diversity on the shoulders of just one individual on the staff. “I just think that doesn’t work,” Baldwin says. “My instinct, and what I’ve seen at O’Reilly in best practices, no one person can help achieve diversity for an organization.”
She says the effort must be universal and brought to the entire employee base. “If we can get everyone to stop thinking about it as a number you have to hit, but as a way of working and including people, I think everybody is going to see a lot more success.”
One best practice Baldwin says organizations can adopt is to develop a set of corporate goals that make it clear the top leadership wants to move forward on this front. “If it’s not that high level for your organization it won’t happen,” she says.
Underrepresented groups make up 30% of O’Reilly’s talent database “of thousands,” Baldwin says, and the objective is to grow that population fast. “We want that to be 40% representation, 10 full percentage points, by the end of the year.”
Though setting goals can get an organization to focus on the objective, she says it is also important to remember it takes time to see results. Consistent, ongoing effort, Baldwin says, is necessary to deliver on those goals. “It’s not a one-time event for us,” she says. “It’s been happening for years already. We’re still focused on it; we still can make it a core goal; and we still have ways to go.”