Why Fixing the Pipeline Alone Won’t End Edtech’s Diversity Problem

Why Fixing the Pipeline Alone Won’t End Edtech’s Diversity Problem

Like the tech industry to which it belongs, education technology companies also struggle with a lack of diversity. Kimberly Bryant, founder of the Oakland-based nonprofit Black Girls Code, says the edtech industry bears a unique responsibility because of its intersection in education, youth opportunity and business.

“I see a lot of companies created by startup founders that see a [business] opportunity,’ she explains, “but what I don’t see enough of in the edtech space are companies that are created by the folks who need the technology the most.”

Among the lofty goals that edtech entrepreneurs espouse is closing the achievement gap. That mission often includes narrowing the divide between students from different geographic, racial and socioeconomic lines. Yet many edtech companies are led by people with advanced degrees and other advantaged pedigrees. They’re also overwhelming white.

Bryant, a black engineer and recent nominee for the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2017 Visionary of the Year award, is not alone this observation. “Are you an edtech leader or innovator when your knowledge of edtech is composed only of a small bubble of people who look and think like you?” educator and #HiddenVoicesofEdTech creator Shana White asked in an EduColor post this week. “I cannot be the only person fed up with seeing the same faces in the same edtech spaces.”

Measure For Good (And For Good Measure)

The first step to fixing a problem is realizing there is a problem. In an effort to begin to address their own hiring biases, some edtech companies have taken what’s often recognized as a first-step in improving diversity from the inside: showing the data. That’s what Clever, a San Francisco-based startup, started doing last year when it published its 2015 demographic survey results.

The data was unsurprising: the employee makeup skewed younger (71 percent were under the age of 30), mostly male (58 percent total and 82 percent of the company’s tech team), and mostly white (62 percent).

The company admitted to its shortcomings. “We know we have further to go towards creating a truly diverse and inclusive company,” the company wrote in a blog post accompanying the data. But Clever sees its public report as a way to get there. “There’s an old adage in the tech industry: You make what you measure … When we think about improving diversity and inclusion at Clever, the first step in the process is to measure the makeup of our team.”

Beyond Measure—Fixing the “Leaky Pipeline”

Measuring the problem is only the beginning, says Catherine Ashcraft, a senior research scientist with the National Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

She has seen companies defer to the “pipeline” as an excuse for their lack of diversity. Often they claim that they never got many applications from diverse candidates to begin with, or that few underrepresented applicants had the skills they were looking for.

Yet this argument warrants careful scrutiny. “Often, [the pipeline] is the first place people think of to look,” says Ashcraft. “It’s not that we shouldn’t look there. But there are some problems with that metaphor—it implies a singular path and we know people come from multiple pathways.”

Bryant echoes Ashcraft. “When we talk about diversity and inclusion and equity in tech space, there is a huge focus on the issue of pipelines,” she says. But the other issue that gets glossed over in that discussion, Bryant adds, is that it’s not simply about getting more underrepresented groups to take the edtech career path. It’s also about “how we lose diverse candidates as they move along this journey.” And that, she explains, can happen anywhere from entering high school, to after someone has already landed a tech (or edtech) job.

She and others refer to this as the “leaky pipeline.” It’s when underrepresented groups make it onto the path towards a tech or edtech job but veer off sometime along the way.

“There’s a huge group of young women interested in tech and lose interest by the time they get to high school,” says Bryant. “If they do make it through that first gate and get to college, a lot of programmers are not welcomed in those early years and attrition rate is high. And if they can get through that, recruiting practices for companies aren’t amenable for attracting diverse candidates.”

Ashcraft points to a report that found the quit rate for women in the tech industry is more than twice as high (41 percent) as it is for men (17 percent). Nearly half of the women who left the SET (science, engineering and technology) jobs in private sector continued to use their technical training in jobs in the nonprofit or other sectors, and 31 percent moved to a non-SET job.

“Contrary to popular opinion,” the report reads, “research suggests that women are not exiting these careers primarily for family concerns—and even when they are, they might have made different ‘choices’ if more flexible options to support these competing responsibilities had been available. Understanding why they are really leaving is key for improving retention and advancement.”

Clever sees the issue as two-fold: a pipeline problem and a company issue. “There are extremely qualified women engineers, but the population of engineers in the Silicon Valley skews male,” explains Dan McCarthy, head of recruiting at Clever. “There are internal challenges too; a lot of factors suggest it’s not just the pipeline problem.”

A Ground-Up Approach

Bryant offers two suggestions to address the problems with hiring she sees in the edtech industry. First and foremost: “build diverse companies from the ground-up.”

Some good examples from other sectors, she says, are Slack and Pinterest. “Those are companies with strong diversity numbers and I believe it’s because they started that way. They built the company with a focus on creating those climates to entice candidates of color and women to join.”

This is also where she believes Black Girls Code—which is launching its 13th chapter this year and aims to train 1 million girls to code by 2040—and other nonprofits are directly stepping in. The program aims to not only prepare girls of color to work as software engineers, but also for them to be the founders of tomorrow’s startups and the creators of more welcoming company cultures.

“It's very evident in edtech when our student population is overly female and Brown, and that’s not how it is in companies,” says Bryant. “There is a disconnect when you are building for a community that you don’t understand. But the types of solutions we could get if founders of edtech companies were more diverse and closely tied to the community would be amazing.”

As for larger companies, Bryant says “it’s difficult to move a ship once it’s put together… Culture change to attract and retain candidates needs to happen, but that’s hard when organizations are more mature.”

Ashcraft, who works with organizations and companies interested in making their workplace more inclusive, says employers should not just scrutinize their recruiting practices and demographics—but also re-evaluate their culture. “The first thing [employers] want to do is recruit, but they don’t realize they have cultural problems within the organization, and it can be difficult to focus on that,” says Ashcraft. Without fixing culture, she says “even if you successfully increase the pipeline, you won’t be successful if they leave once they get there.”

Build Your Own Pipelines

In addition to that kind of internal work, Bryant says companies should also be working themselves to create the pipelines they need. “I see companies, like Intel and Google, that are creating programs to seed their pipeline.”

Specifically, she points to feeder programs and initiatives like Howard West, a Howard University campus soon to be offered at Google’s headquarters that will directly attract and work with students at historically black colleges and universities. By doing that, she says, Google is “not just saying the pipeline isn't there, but this is how we will create the pipeline for the future of our company.”

Clever Progress

Since releasing the 2015 results, Clever has since published more recent demographic data. There’s still a lot of work to do—women still make up only 17 percent of technical roles at Clever, and only 20 percent of employees are not white or Asian. But the company says it has made some progress in the last year. In particular, Clever highlights how “in management roles, women and men are equally represented,” and plans to continue releasing the data each year.

The changes Clever has seen in the past year have been deliberate. After beginning to monitor its diversity efforts, McCarthy says for the past two years the company has dedicated “100 percent” of outreach efforts for engineering roles towards women and underrepresented minorities.

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