Systemic Investments in Equity, Talent & Tech – Equity along the Spectrum

By Kamau Bobb Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech

The Systemic Investments in Equity, Talent, and Tech Accelerate Community has taken a deep dive into the structure and objectives of individual programs focused on tech equity in the portfolios of its members. The objective of the CECP community is to develop a framework that can render corporate efforts in tech equity more impactful. At the center of the work is the identification of the core variables that distinguish equity from equality.

Tenets of an equity framework:

  • tie exposure programs to formal educational outcomes
  • value proposition of different kinds of schools
  • expectations of the talent acquisition programs

As a guiding principle, equity and equality are not equivalent. Tech equity is not merely the strive for greater diversity and inclusion, it is an effort to address the institutional structures that continuously yield the racial and gender imbalances and injustices in the tech sector.

There has been consensus among the Community that corporate engagement in tech equity falls along a spectrum.  On one end of the spectrum are efforts focused on exposure and engagement in STEM fields for young people. On the other end are efforts focused on direct and specific talent acquisition. In the middle are the range of programs that focus to varying degrees on formal skill development for education or direct workforce opportunities. The extent to which corporate engagement on this spectrum is systemic and effective depends on the specific objective of programs and a clear articulation of the problem that individual companies are trying to solve.

Participant companies suggest that corporate philanthropic giving and programmatic work in the tech equity space is driven by two primary factors that affect where these programs sit – in human resources, or in the core business functions – and how they are funded and evaluated:

  1. Self-interest. The recognition that the U.S. workforce in STEM related fields is not growing sufficiently fast to meet their specific industrial needs. This challenge translates into a matter of public policy in the debate over H1-B visa caps. The definition of global U.S.-based companies with technical workforces that are predominantly foreign-born or located outside the country is a delicate public and philosophical challenge. In the face of workforce needs in specific technical areas, companies engage in targeted investments in domestic tech workforce development.
  1. Social responsibility. Diversity and inclusion efforts are driven by contemporary social pressure and the swiftly changing demographics of the country. The demographics of the United States are changing at a pace unprecedented since forced immigration of the 18th and early 19th centuries and the mass immigration era of the early 2oth. America is browning and the social split along race and class lines is correlated with nearly all social maladies. If not just because it is morally correct, by sheer force of numbers, the tech talent pool will ultimately have to better reflect the make-up of the country.

The spectrum of corporate engagement is reflective of these split objectives and can be divided roughly into three stages, each of which has specific implications for equity.

What is the Spectrum?

Stage 1 | Engagement and Exposure. At one end of the spectrum there is an array of programs that are focused on K-12 engagement and exposure. Several corporations have signature branded programs that offer engagement to STEM activities to youth of color or young women and girls.  The broad objective of these programs is to pique student interest to increase the likelihood that these young people will pursue STEM fields in higher education. These programs also serve as important indicators of good corporate citizenship. The branding of these programs is necessary to signal to the community that the individual companies are aware, concerned and engaged in helping those populations that are most in need.

Through an equity lens, K-12 engagement and exposure are necessary, but insufficient to change the trajectory of students’ education. The reality that these programs are up against are rooted in deeply entrenched educational patterns that reveal structural inequities. For example, exposure to STEM activities, by themselves, will not affect students’ performance on the SAT or ACT. The racial divide on that exam is a leading indicator not only of the nation’s segregated college landscape, but of the challenge to diversity and inclusion that all U.S.-based corporations are grappling with.

Figure 1:  Brookings Study on Race Gaps on the SAT

While it is beyond the purview of corporations to fix education, if they are going to engage in education, it is their responsibility to do so in a manner that is directly connected to the core educational outcomes that determine students’ trajectory in STEM fields. Tying engagement and outreach programs to formal learning outcomes that correlate with student progress anchors the efforts in equity.

Figure 2: Center for Education and the Workforce Report, Separate and Unequal. 1995 – 2009

Stage 2 | Rigorous Programs. In the K-12 space, rigorous programs are those that tie exposure to formal educational outcomes. The distinction between a program focused on equity and one focused on equality is important.  An effort driven by equality leads to measures of program effectiveness that rely on the number of students going through some particular experience.  The number of students who participate in a corporate sponsored hack-a-thon, for example, may number in the hundreds and meet objectives related to student touch.  An effort driven by equity could also sponsor the complementary offering of any of the suite of formal STEM courses that are necessary for students to realistically move into post-secondary STEM education. The former focuses merely on student participation, the latter on building an equitable infrastructure to substantively change their educational outcomes.

Stage 3 | Talent Acquisition

The equity challenge associated with talent acquisition is connected to the attitude that corporations have of the graduates of the programs targeted to people of color. Ongoing issues related to the retention and professional advancement of people of color and women are evidence of this challenge.

Figure 3: National Science Foundation Report on Minority Participation in Engineering Fields, 2017

Here, an equity focus requires a shift in the value system. The assumption that highly skilled potential workers only come from a narrow subset of the American higher education system is flawed. It is a structural barrier to the goals of tech equity. In the current higher education landscape, the majority of Black and Hispanic students attend 2 year colleges or for profit private institutions. Recruitment and internal advancement processes have to break the assumption that talent and potential only exist in certain kinds of schools and cultivate alternative talent pipelines.

Moving Towards Equity Along the Spectrum

There has been consensus among members of the community that one of the core challenges to addressing equity issues directly, is the business requirement of meeting near-term returns on investment. The tension around management of these kinds of programs is evidence of that. In some cases, this work is housed in corporate responsibility or offices of community engagement. In other instances, they are housed in human resources or business units with an eye towards talent acquisition.  The relationship of each of these departments to these programs implicates the funding allocated to it, the metrics of success and the internal value of the work itself.

The community outlined the stages of the spectrum in the larger tech equity effort. At each stage, there are specific factors that distinguish equity from equality. There is emerging consensus on the significant differences between focusing on equity versus high-touch equality driven programs at each stage. The community recognizes the ongoing challenge associated with this difference in approach. Given that the larger needles of the diversity in the tech sector have not measurably improved in recent years, continued commitment is critical. It must be done however, with greater focus on the structural barriers to equity.


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