Closing the Tech Diversity Gap: A Complex Issue Without A Simple Answer
By Casey Leins, Staff Writer
IN 2013, MICROSOFT Corporation launched a program designed to transition service members and veterans into the technology industry.
The program, Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, now has 14 locations, boasts a 93 percent graduation rate, and has the capacity to graduate around 1,000 students each year.
"Veterans are a talent pool we haven't sought in the past," says Microsoft's Vice President of Military Affairs Chris Cortez. "And the military vets very much represent our diverse country."
Cortez joined other industry leaders and researchers Thursday at U.S. News & World Report's Stem Solutions: Workforce of Tomorrow conference in Washington D.C., to discuss the state of diversity in STEM and how to bridge the gap that still exists.
The panelists agreed that veterans are just one example of talent pools that have not been fully explored.
A Multi-Faceted Issue
But locating these new, diverse groups are only one part of the solution. One theme the panelists reiterated throughout the presentation was that there is no simple solution to bridge the gap and that there are many factors at play.
Not only do underrepresented groups need better access to STEM education and careers, but company's cultures need to change and be more inclusive to retain those employees.
"It's not just about fixing the student, but how do we change the culture of the institutional structures and frameworks?" says Courtney Tanenbaum, who studies these issues at the American Institutes for Research.
Intel Corporation is an example of a company that has been working to increase its diversity and retention rates.
"What Intel is trying to accomplish inside the walls of our company is to really mitigate inclusion and diversity issues. It's what society has not yet done outside of our walls" says Barbara Whye, the company's vice president of human resources and chief diversity and inclusion officer.
She notes that Intel's research reveals that employees who feel included are seven times more likely to stay at the company.
Motivating Underrepresented Groups
During the session, a high schooler asked the panelists how she, as a woman of color, can stay motivated and determined to pursue a STEM career despite the fact that she is afraid to fail.
The student said that she was one of two females in her school district last year to take the AP computer science exam; the audience applauded. Though she wants to pursue a job in STEM, she said, she is concerned about making errors in front of her teachers and peers in difficult courses and feels pressure to perform well.
Tanenbaum said the fact that mistakes are seen as failures is a flaw in the nation's education system.
"That mindset needs to shift," she added. "That probably means starting really early [in conveying a different message] to kids."
The panelists also noted that role models are important for underrepresented groups.
Allison Scott, chief research officer at Kapor Center for Social Impact, stressed the large impact of industry leaders interacting with these students.