Tech companies: Stop conflating privilege with potential
This article, co-written by Reboot Representation CEO Dwana Franklin-Davis and Last Mile Education Fund Founder Ruthe Farmer, originally appeared on 12/24/21 on TechCrunch.
The number of low-income students attending college is increasing: According to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center, the total share of undergraduate college students who come from low-income families increased from 12% in 1996 to 20% in 2016. However, only 11% of students in the bottom income quartile complete their degrees within six years, compared to 58% for those in the top quartile.
This discrepancy should make you pause. Why are so many low-income students making it to college but not to degree completion, and thus, not reaching their full potential in the workforce? One short answer encompasses the issue: a lack of unique and targeted support and resources. And, in the tech sector specifically, this lack of support stems from a problematic ecosystem that often assumes privilege and affluence in its students and future employees.
These assumptions (subconscious or not) perpetuate a tech industry that fails to access a critical and fruitful talent pool by wrongfully and consistently disqualifying low-income students from the educational and career opportunities that open doors.
It’s clear that the tech education-to-career pipeline fails low-income students before degree completion and entrance into one of the highest-paid sectors in our economy — but we aren’t talking about it. Socioeconomic status must be part of the “diversity” conversation — it is underreported and underdiscussed.
What does it mean to conflate privilege with potential?
Like in many industries, tech recruitment (from internships to full-time jobs) happens well before graduation. High-potential low-income students often don’t fit into the “ideal candidate” archetype sought by this recruitment structure, which overvalues and rewards characteristics that are often a better indicator of privilege than talent or potential. How does that happen, and how can we stop it?
If you ask hiring managers what skills might be necessary to succeed in the tech industry, they may say that they’re looking for new candidates who:
- Have great problem-solving skills.
- Have demonstrated time-management skills.
- Are hardworking.
- Are resilient and willing to persevere through tricky problems.
- Are adaptable.
These skills can come from many different experiences — for example, a student working a full- or part-time job while pursuing a technical degree gains a strong work ethic, time-management prowess and resilience. A first-generation student navigating the college experience on their own without the benefit of family knowledge or social networks likely obtains impressive problem-solving skills. Although these are subjective, they are incredibly valuable skills for succeeding in tech.
However, in recruitment practices, these demonstrated skills are rarely part of the equation and are inequitably overshadowed by things like:
- Privileged high school experiences (including test prep, high-quality advising, access to higher-level math courses) that open doors to attending a prestigious college/university, and the many opportunities and supports that come with it.
- The financial wherewithal and time (i.e., not having to work to support oneself or ability to work fewer hours) to participate in campus clubs and networks, attend hackathons, and/or attend conferences or networking events on weekends and evenings.
- The up-front cash and knowledge needed to navigate travel for an in-person job interview or relocate for an internship.
- Test scores, GPA and other quantitative measures that are heavily influenced by privilege, such as access to expensive test prep courses, rigorous math preparation before college and, most of all, the freedom to focus solely on academics afforded to those that do not have to work to support themselves and their families.
- Awards and recognitions predicated on many of the above factors, as well as social capital.
Unlike the first set, these criteria are considered markers of “potential.” However, attaining these markers requires a certain degree of privilege and affluence unavailable to most students. All of these experiences take time and energy that keep one from attending to their family, to the job that’s paying for their education and to other important responsibilities outside the classroom. Many of these experiences require independent money; most of these experiences favor extracurricular networks, prior knowledge and preparatory privilege.
This is an enormous missed opportunity with dire consequences. The tech industry must decouple event attendance, awards and where one went to school from one’s actual ability to succeed in the industry. They are not one and the same, and if we continue to conflate privilege with potential, we are going to fail to access this community of high-potential students, leaving us with an ongoing talent shortage and a less diverse tech sector.
How can tech course-correct to ensure that low-income students are uniquely supported throughout their entire tech journey?
Level the playing field for low-income recruits
More than half of college students report experiencing housing insecurity. To put it bluntly: Acing your computer science exam is hard when you can’t pay your rent, and completing an assignment is nearly impossible if you don’t have a fast internet connection.
To address these barriers (both new and longstanding) we must understand them, and then invest in resources that break them down.
First, support and invest in organizations that work to fill these gaps for students from low-income backgrounds. Second, level the playing field for all new recruits — if you’re a decision-maker or HR representative at a tech company, ensure you’re supplying all interns and new hires with door-to-door support for relocation and onboarding.
Don’t assume students have the credit or family funding to cover these costs upfront and wait weeks for reimbursement. This enables candidates to show up as their best selves.
Invest in college students to invest in diversity
The tech sector tends to invest in the start of the tech pipeline — companies concentrate 66% of their philanthropic funding on K–12 programs, compared to 3% on college-level programs.
K-12 investments are important but need follow-through at the higher education level to yield the talent we need. We must ensure students are completing their degrees (and support them throughout their journey to doing so) — this will yield immediate returns in the form of ready tech talent and more diverse minds contributing to the tech innovations that elevate us all.
What does this mean in practice? Here’s one example: If you hire a new employee who is still in their senior year, cover their spring term. Invest in your future employees; give them the space to focus on the final, high-level classes that will better prepare them for the job, rather than leaving them to worry about paying tuition, rent and other expenses during those critical last few months.
The current population of students graduating with computing degrees, and the tech sector as a whole, does not mirror our diverse society — not only in race and gender, but also in socioeconomic status. And that’s because the tech industry continues to conflate privilege with potential.
The result is a homogeneous tech sector creating critical technologies that don’t serve everyone equally. It’s past time to uniquely support and invest in low-income students throughout the entire tech pipeline.