There is a lot of talk in our industry about creating more diverse and inclusive teams and more broadly, about being part of a more equitable society.
We often hear about diversifying talent pipelines, de-biasing recruitment, creating products that serve all, and all that sort of good stuff. And we also hear from many, that truly diversifying talent pipelines and leadership candidate slates, as well as finding fundable ventures with diverse leaders and ideas is tough stuff and easier said than done.
But why? If there is a will to diversify our organizations, what’s stopping us from succeeding?
As an organization who is leading the development of a SaaS solution focused on giving ALL children in grades K – 12 access to best in class STEM education through SaaS – we’d like to argue — given our many interactions with both the tech sector, the educational sector, and our government stakeholders — that all of you – indeed all of us — are taking a short view on diversity and talent.
We are all trying to solve the problem about 15 years downstream of the formation of the problem. We are not thinking enough about how to invest in eliminating bias from STEM education for our children.
And if you’re not thinking about this and taking action on it — you are most certainly taking a short view on talent – and we will create a future for our sector that looks every bit as inequitable as it does today.
Research shows that biases about who belongs in STEM can solidify as early as age 8. Between the ages of 2 and 6 children learn stereotypes about toys, skills and activities that are typically associated with each gender. Between the ages of 7 and 10 they start to attribute certain qualities to gender, building a stereotyped perspective that drives their vision and understanding of the world around them.
Are we actually building a diverse talent pool if we are only starting to fight bias years and even decades past when these thought processes have been solidified and perpetually reinforced?
We need to be actively combating bias at a much earlier age, before those biases have the chance to solidify in ways that limit youth’s opportunities and limit who is actually part of the talent pool we are drawing from.
Studies continue to validate that child development—particularly from birth to five years—is a foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society and early preventive intervention is more efficient and will produce more favorable outcomes than remediation later in life.
Knowing these facts, our action and interaction with children matter. Children are internalizing the messages they hear from their parents, teachers, and society in general and media.
A study published in 2017 in the journal Science suggests that girls as young as 6 can be led to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, making girls less motivated to pursue novel activities or ambitious careers. That such stereotypes exist is hardly a surprise if we take even a cursory glance at the world around us, but what is relevant here is how these findings show just how early these kinds of biases and thinking are developed.
Even in our own STEM programs at our facility, we can clearly see the outcome of bias and stereotype. The gender difference between our 4-7 age group and 8-10 age group is noticeable. We get frequent requests from our older girls and their parents to be grouped with same-gender peers. Our older girls tend to gravitate towards our less “threatening” classes like film and photography rather than coding. By themselves, there is nothing inherently wrong with these choices. The issue begins when our children believe this is the only option or the only right choice for them based on what society expects of them.
By making such firm choices early in their lives, they narrow their career options even further in high school and even more at post-secondary level. In order to combat bias and build diverse teams, our children need to feel free to explore, to learn fearlessly, and to truly believe that they belong in any room.
But how can we do this? If we know that we need to combat bias at even the youngest ages and that it is our actions and behaviour that needs to change, what are some steps we can take to make that change?
Well, we don’t have all the answers. In fact, there is no list of things we should and shouldn’t say or do. There’s no easy script. But all of us at STEM MINDS have made a personal commitment to not just talk the talk, but actually walk the walk. Here are some of the things that we are doing to make changes in our own behaviour.
For our Founder & CEO, it can start with things as simple as being more critical about the kinds of gifts she gives her nieces versus her nephews. She has made the choice to no longer purchase overtly gendered gifts for the children in her family and instead to give them gifts and experiences that inspire and challenge them to be bigger and bolder.
It also looks like valuing diversity and actively seeking it out within her own business team. Gender balance, cultural diversity, and diversity of educational backgrounds and areas of expertise means that our team brings a variety of perspectives to our business that allows us to innovate and create programs that are exciting and valuable to our clients.
Even more challenging is the commitment to have uncomfortable conversations. When you encounter bias, respond with empathy rather than justifying stereotyping. Take a principled stand that diversity and inclusion aren’t just buzzwords, they are valuable attributes on our teams that help us success. Talk to the people in your life and actively seek out the leaders and influencers in your business community to challenge the way things are currently being done and push them to improve the way they build diverse talent pool.
So how are we going to get the job done? For kids, repetition and continuous engagement is what makes the difference. Unless we are willing to make that consistent, long term investment with authenticity and a deeper understanding of what we are investing in and why, we will not get products and services aligned with where the industry is going.
What sort of investments can we be making in debiasing kids perceptions of our work, and debiasing kids access to great STEM education starting in Kindergarten?
Can your business find a way to invest – even a little bit — in taking a longer view on diversity and talent? Can we invite kids into our work spaces more? Get them excited by the promise of our business – and be deliberate about exiting boys and girls, kids with money and kids without, kids of all cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, kids of all ability? Can you use your personal connections into our educational system – through your children, or your nieces and nephews, or in your neighbourhood, to contribute to building a less biased future generation?
As a maturing tech sector ecosystem – we have a duty to think upstream and to invest what we can.
Come on people, let’s begin to take a longer view on diversity and talent.