Diversity in Silicon Valley Should Include Disabilities
Everyone's talking about efforts across Silicon Valley to spread diversity in the workforce. Inclusion is a great thing, but one has to wonder why disability is hardly touted as a characteristic worth recruiting.
Silicon Valley takes on diversity issue
Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, a contentious issue that has come into sharper focus in recent months as tech firms sheepishly released updates on their hiring of minorities. The companies have pledged to do better. Many point to the talent pipeline as one of the main culprits. They’d hire if they could, but not enough black and Hispanic students are pursuing computer science degrees, they say. Read more.
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This week Silicon Valley veteran Sukhinder Singh Cassidy unveiled The Boardlist, a database to help startup CEOs find qualified women to appoint to their private boards. The list includes more than 600 female leaders compiled by more than 50 high-profile tech industry insiders and venture capitalists (both men and women) in the San Francisco Bay Area. ... The Boardlist aims to provide an easier system for the discovery and matching of CEOs and pre-vetted female board candidates, letting users of the database (which is in beta for now), dig into categories like functional expertise, industry, company stage, and board experience. Read more.
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Hey, Silicon Valley CEO or director of engineering. You say you care about diversity in tech. So here's a novel idea: Give an internship to the daughter of your housecleaner. Or it might be a scholarship for the nephew of your nanny. Or a summer job to the grandchild of the office janitor, security guard or bus driver. Read more.
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There must be a logical reason for the lack of disability representation across the tech sector. Silicon Valley is home to leading companies producing some of the most innovative products designed by some of the world's brightest innovators.
It's not lack of awareness. Google support's the NFB's Scholarship Program and must see the potential a blind software developer could offer. The Google Impact Challenge seeks to "propel even more technological innovation that will create meaningful and positive change for people with disabilities." Clearly the company appreciates the challenges persons with disabilities face and wants to invest funds toward solutions.
It's not lack of confidence. Apple's position on accessibility proclaims: We’ve done everything possible to make anything possible, and it's a fine tagline befitting a company that continues to enjoy dominance over accessible products out of the box. One hopes Apple has ensured equal productivity across its own apps not because it was forced to do so, as some still speculate, but rather, because it believes persons with disabilities are equal contributors.
Perhaps it's a lack of applicants? Consider the following from the University of Minnesota:
When considering students with disabilities, their participation in postsecondary education is lower than their representation in the U.S. population, and significantly lower in comparison to their peers without disabilities. For students with disabilities who are enrolled in postsecondary education, only 11% of those students in undergraduate programs are pursuing STEM degrees (Burrelli, 2007). This number drops to 7% in graduate programs in STEM, with only 1% earning a doctorate degree in STEM (Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, 2007) and only 4.8% entering the science and engineering workforce (Burrelli & Falkenheim, 2011). This low number indicates a need to encourage and support students with disabilities to enter and complete postsecondary education in STEM so they can compete in this growing job market. Read more.
If it is a question of insufficient candidates, tech leaders should consider battling the problem at its root. Students with disabilities are still inhibited by the same technology they wish to revolutionize. Modern technology has done great things to advance education. Unfortunately, modern technology also spawns more exercises in advocacy than exercises in learning. Tech leaders could be more proactive about ensuring the core accessibility of products widely adopted by the education sector. For instance, it's well past time for Amazon to make its Kindles accessible.
Silicon Valley should consider dedicated recruitment campaigns to identify qualified persons with disabilities. The NFB has begun incorporating job fairs into its national conventions and Washington Seminars. It would be great to see the number of mainstream employers outnumber employers in the blindness field as part of these small but promising gatherings. Strategic partnerships with cross-disability groups could inspire a collective effort to identify, groom, and ultimately employ competitive candidates. Of course internship opportunities provide one way for employers to cultivate ideal staff, not to mention a perfect means to observe accessibility and productivity comingling in a real world scenario.
Taking the recruitment idea one step further, it's not unusual for larger tech companies to partner with universities to undertake specific projects or research studies. In September 2014 Apple announced partnerships with Duke and Stanford on medical trials for HealthKit. One month later Google announced a partnership with Oxford to make advances in artificial intelligence. Perhaps it's time to identify a state school for the blind or a rehabilitation training center that could yield both potential candidates as well as create an incubator for technologies benefiting persons with disabilities.
Are there other solutions? Absolutely. These are only a start to what could be a fruitful dialogue.
The 25th anniversary of the ADA saw a chorus of voices vowing to make technology more accessible for persons with disabilities. That's a noteworthy step and commendable of the coalition participants. Yet, it is not enough to train existing engineers in accessibility best practices. Silicon Valley ought to move from a passive hiring of employees with disabilities to a dedicated effort to identify qualified candidates. Persons with disabilities want to be given the opportunity to contribute, not just consume.
Diversity is a hot button issue. The technology sector is being asked to extend itself beyond a traditional workforce to one that encompasses people who have historically been overlooked. Persons with disabilities have been overlooked. It's time to reverse the trend, acknowledge disabilities are a part of a diverse working environment and make them as much of a priority in building the next generation of Silicon Valley leaders as any other factor.
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