Diversity Goals? Rethink that College Degree Requirement

  • by Kate Kaye
  • Aug 28, 2017

“I thought tech was a meritocracy.”

A tech CEO I heard speak recently shared this revelation, noting that he’d since realized he was…umm…wrong. Hey, a lot of us were inculcated from a young age with the notion that to achieve a life goal — whether it be to go to law school, own a restaurant or become a software engineer – all we have to do is be industrious and dedicated and we’ll reap the rewards. For many people who don’t look the part, didn’t go to the “right” schools and don’t know the “right” people, it ain’t that easy.

That tech CEO was Ryan Carson, co-founder of Treehouse, a Portland, OR startup. He spoke on a panel about the need for diversity in tech at a PDX Women in Tech event I attended here in Portland on August 17. (In case you weren’t aware, Portlanders like to refer to their city by its airport code. They’re also obsessed with the PDX Airport carpet.)

Being the only guy fitting the straight white male tech entrepreneur stereotype, Carson made a point of reminding the primarily young, female audience in his overtly-self-effacing way that tech CEOs like him have contributed – wittingly or not – to the lack of diversity and inclusion in the tech field.

Describing himself as “a male CEO who’s been part of the system,” he admitted that before he truly came to terms with the reality of institutionalized bias, and his own personal biases, he “had massive blind spots.”

In addition to a few good quotes, including one about VCs being “sexist pigs,” I came back from the event with a short list of legit action items to share with people who want to facilitate increased diversity and inclusion in their organizations, rather than simply, you know, just gabbing about it.

Can the College Degree Requirement
Every diversity discussion inevitably leads to the candidate problem. You’ve heard it before: Recruiters say there aren’t enough people outside the stereotype to hire, preventing them from altering the complexity of their organizations.

This certainly is true in many cases, but in some cases the lack of candidates could be a result of restrictively-narrow parameters. In other words, recruiters may need to cast a wider net. Carson, whose firm offers online courses in JavaScript, Python and other foundational coding and tech-related subjects, suggested that companies should re-think two- and four-year college degree requirements in job searches.

Let’s look past the fact that it’s self-serving for the CEO of an online tech education firm that does not offer degrees to say this; in some situations, he’s probably right. In my own experience, I had a successful business journalism career for nearly two decades and I got there by falling into it a few years after getting a textile design degree (long story). To this day, the majority of journalism jobs require a journalism degree. I never got one and managed to do quite well without it. From what I can tell, it’s a boilerplate requirement that shows up in practically every reporting job ad, even ones requiring years of experience on top of a degree, and one worth revisiting. If someone can build up strong examples of good work, whether it be reporting or coding, perhaps having the degree isn’t always an imperative.

Un-Narrow Your Candidate Search, Kick Ass
Here’s another related idea: Panelist Katharine Nester, chief product and technology officer at Ruby Receptionists, a Portland-based virtual receptionist service, told the PDXWiT audience that her firm had been unintentionally narrowing the candidate field for a recent engineering-related job opening.

In this case, Ruby originally sought to hire a veteran with lots of experience. Problem was, in seeking someone with lots of experience, the company was limited to older technologists who tend not to be women, people of color, or LGBT.

In the end, the firm decided to hire two less senior people who can be molded to suit the company’s needs and culture. This actual came in handy for, say, teaching the new hires standard company coding protocols, for example (rather than hoping a more seasoned person would unlearn other habits).

Plus, said Nester, the less-experienced hires are doing well in their new roles. I believe she said something about them “kicking ass.”

Perqs and Policy
Panelist Lori DeLone, CIO of health plans at Cambia Health Solutions, the Portland-based non-profit health insurance firm that hosted the event, had some thoughts on creating an environment that caters to women, moms and others who don’t fit the traditional professional mold. Organizations should foster allies of diversity, and ensure that company perqs align with inclusion goals by providing good maternity and paternity leave and establishing a solid remote working policy, she suggested.

On a Mission (Statement)
Often overlooked, organizations also might consider enshrining diversity goals in their mission statements, panelists suggested. Can champions of diversity in the organization influence leaders to establish a diversity pledge, for instance? Seems like a worthwhile effort, assuming it’s accompanied by concrete action items to make it come to fruition.

There’s no question that the route to real diversity and inclusion in the tech world and beyond is a steep uphill climb. Hopefully these takeaways and tactics might inspire some out there to take real steps towards the change we often talk about but don’t often implement.

Who’s ready for real action?

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Categories:Culture, Diversity


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