The John Stanley Ford Fellowship: A Step Forward as We Strive for Racial Equity and Equal Opportunities in Tech

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It’s the question of our time: How can we achieve a more racially equitable workforce — one that especially uplifts Black people?

If we want to break structural racism, we need to start with the structure itself. That’s what our society strives for right now in education, healthcare, criminal justice and other social systems. But business, too, needs to change.

The tech industry — among the greatest drivers of cultural advancement and prosperity of the last 50 years — is still made up of only 7% Black professionals, according to EEOC data. To remedy this, it’s imperative we look beyond just improving recruitment practices. We need to hold each other accountable for opening up access and improving workplace culture, training, employee retention, investment and more.

It’s important that we level-set: equity, by definition, is achieved when the distribution of resources and opportunities are neither determined, nor predicted by, race, racial bias or racial ideology. Our newly launched John Stanley Ford Fellowship, which offers apprenticeships to Black graduates, is only one aspect of the work needed to effect meaningful and long-lasting advancement of Black tech professionals.

A Question of Access

In 1946, John Stanley Ford became IBM’s (and America’s) first Black software engineer.  Throughout his four decade career, as a software engineer, he faced numerous professional barriers, such as pay discrimination, isolation among his collegues and being passed up for promotions. In spite of these, his legacy is an opportunity for Black professionals in tech. Ford knew it wasn’t enough to be smart and capable; Black people also needed access. 

Today, this question of access is pernicious. Progress on access, in the tech world, is slow. According to Bloomberg, in eight of the largest tech companies, Black workers made up just 3.1% of the workforce in 2017 — a miniscule improvement over 2014, when that figure stood at 2.5% — despite numerous commitments made to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Lack of access translates to a lack of representation, which creates challenges for Black professionals at every level. A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation, “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration,” looked at the corporate experiences of Black employees at large and small corporations. It revealed stark realities. For example: 

  • Black professionals are nearly four times more likely than White professionals (58% versus 15%) to say they’ve experienced racial prejudice at work; 

  • 43% of Black executives have had colleagues use racially insensitive language in their presence; and

  • Black women are far less likely to have access to the same support and advocacy as white women.

The study also found only 40% of employees, of all races, think their companies have effective DEI programs.

Networks, too, can be barriers to access, and have inherent links to class structure. Milkround’s 2019 “Candidate Compass Report” highlights the ease with which British students from elite universities find work compared to their peers. Their connections help secure more internships and their applications are supported by the prestige of their education, making them more appealing to prospective employers. 

Networks also tend to remain closed off to underrepresented groups, with people on the inside often giving referrals to people they know. John Rice, founder of Management Leadership Tomorrow, asserts that the pipeline has many qualified students of color and views his company’s role as connecting the industry to young talent. “So much of the way business works out here is through networks,” Rice says. “That’s a structural impediment to fostering diversity.” 

Accountable to whom?

Lastly, accountability is an essential part of the process. It’s not enough for companies to have just one or two programs in place to tackle systemic racism; we need to challenge the system every day, in every way possible. The road to long-lasting change requires reevaluating the ways in which businesses and networks operate. And, we have to hold each other accountable to clearly articulate objectives and key results, evaluating and tracking performance and listening to feedback. 

Some key questions we all need to consider as businesses moving forward:

  • How do we ensure that all DEI programs are built-in as part of a wider DEI strategy and hardcoded into the company’s goals? 

  • How do we go beyond the work to address roles & responsibilities at all — not just entry-level — positions of seniority? 

  • While recruiting talent, how might we shift the burden, from the candidate to the company, of creating a culture fit?

  • What conversations should we have today, to avoid issues of credibility arising for future employees?

Contributions by Kima Cooper

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