‘We need to disassociate the tech from the people’: guest editor Anthonia Ogundele
The founder and executive director of Ethos Lab Educational Society writes about the lack of diversity in tech right now.
If someone told me five years ago that I would start a youth-based non-profit organization during a global pandemic, I would have said “Not in this lifetime.” I had left my job as an emergency manager to address what I felt was a disaster happening in my own life. It would occur every time I brought my daughter to STEM workshops to find that she was often the only female and the only Black child in the room. I wondered, with so many programs out there that provide access to STEM activities, why does the problem of under-representation persist? I thought about four different responses to the problem, and spotlighting the achievement of youth in our community to overcome and thrive in spite of it all.
1. We don’t have a programming problem, we have a culture problem
How do we create spaces that have a culture of inclusion? I would argue it goes beyond policies and diversity training.
There are dozens of STEM-focused programs that youth can get into, but do they create a sense of belonging? This sense of belonging is critical in building confidence and courageousness in trying new things and persisting through difficult tasks. A community-based approach is essential in shifting culture. An accessible ecosystem of like-minded organizations committed to increasing representation is a first step in scaling this sense of belonging and creating a community that builds towards a future that is inclusive of all. A holistic approach to teaching STEM that includes everyone. Collaboration is key in order to scale the impact that we all want to see.
2. Youth are most influenced by their peers and that includes boys
We cannot create an inclusive environment for girls or Black youth without addressing our dominant culture’s permissiveness of patriarchy and racism. There is a need for everyone to say under-representation is not ok. When it comes to female mentorship approaches to increasing representation, I like to say, “If girls can see it they can be it, and if boys can see it, they will believe it.” The presence of positive examples can not only answer questions on the path to careers for girls and non-binary folks in tech, but it can normalize the presence of girls and womxn as leaders and peers in programming for males.
3. To get more diversity, you need to include more diversity (not just in leadership, but in program delivery)
“I’m not a tech person.”
What does that even mean? When speaking with the girls in Ethos Lab, this is a common refrain. Often when you’re encouraging increased representation in tech, you talk to a lot of people who don’t see themselves as “tech people.”
We need to disassociate the Tech from the People. Technology is a tool that can support youth in their creation—it’s not a categorization of a population. When I hear a girl say that she is not a “tech person,” it’s coded as ‘I am not a boy, I don’t know how to code, and I am not smart enough.’ There are of course girls that have an affinity for the STEM courses in school, but we cannot discount the curiosity and creativity that is also necessary for a career in tech.
These youth are debaters, designers and problem solvers who may have art and debate as higher priorities in their free time, but it doesn’t mean they can’t create using technology. A screen-printing workshop, debate, sports and competitions foster the sense of teamwork, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving that is needed to be successful in tech and to dismantle the bias. A book club highlighting Black authors in the themes of afro-futurism is just as inspiring for some kids as watching a Space-X Launch.
4. Meet them where they are at—context is everything
The Ethos Lab youth entered an urban planning competition and the prize was $10,000. When I asked the Ethosians (youth in Ethos Lab) what they would do if they won the money, there were lots of ideas, but they were all mostly in agreement that Jordans needed to be purchased for everyone. Jordans are basketball shoes. Using sneaker culture as a starting point, our following program involved working in Blender to design custom shoes. Creating a space to redefine and reimagine what a “tech person” is requires a bit of creativity and meeting the youth where they are at. Similar approaches included creating a video game to learn how to manage stress during the pandemic and exploring identity in creating custom avatars.
I know when I hear about the tech ecosystem I think about the businesses, industries and post-secondary institutions and programs that are driving innovation forward. There is an opportunity right now to re-imagine this ecosystem starting from K-12 to address the urgency in increasing representation. We need to change the cultural operating system to be grounded on mutual respect, increasing representation and cultural safety. This is what we have tried to employ to shift youth from consumers (of the worlds around them, of community and of future innovation) to creators. There is an opportunity to shake things up while working across industries, disciplines and cultures. We are working with organizations like UBC Geering UP, EA, Pause and Effect, the National Speech and Debate Association and looking for other potential partners on this journey.
These are some of the ways we hope to flip the switch and grow the pipeline, but we don’t do this alone. Why not join us :). We are all in this together in creating an inclusive future that includes everyone.
To learn more about Ethọ́s Lab and to donate to our $100,000 in 100 days fundraising campaign, you can check out www.ethoslab.ca. If you want to connect with me directly, you can find me on LinkedIn or Instagram or come by our new space in Mount Pleasant.