Sumayyah Emeh-Edu On Closing the Diversity Gap in STEM
Strategic Advisor at TechInclusion
1. What do you do and what is your background in STEM?
Essentially my background has been primarily in K12 and higher education, and some training within the corporate sector. My experience in K12 focused on the STEM pipeline in terms of curriculum and job readiness, and advocating vocational initiatives within the tech sector. In higher education I helped with STEM education in a number of different sectors (engineering, technology, computing), working with career changers or individuals looking to broaden their technology skillsets.
I currently work with the Tech Inclusion initiative, and our whole mission is to change diversity conversations to focus on inclusion and diversity, and create a more inclusive ecosystem within tech.
2. Why do you believe in supporting diverse STEM talent?
Many reasons – there’s a huge need for qualified individuals and there’s a whole population of talented people who either don’t have access to the sector, don’t feel like they fit in or, once they start, don’t feel included in the ecosystem and leave.
I think STEM is the future of American business and business everywhere – a lot of jobs are embracing technology and we have to include all sectors of our population into the future workforce. It’s an untapped market for companies; there’s a strong need for these individuals as this is where the future’s going.
3. What is the biggest challenge in achieving STEM diversity?
Essentially it’s a multi-tier approach. I’ve been in the San Francisco area for around seven years and I’ve dealt with tech education, the STEM pipeline and all issues there. In another position I worked with tech companies to help them train individuals, help with leadership development and work on their retention and training strategies, and the diversity question always comes up.
The pipeline issue is important as there isn’t a large percentage of minority groups graduating from STEM programs. Seeing parity within tech companies and the tech industry is difficult, because the numbers just aren’t there. As one long term solution companies need to create strategic partnerships that show examples to minorities and women that a career in this sector is viable – they need to reverse the biases they experience. We need to work with the K12 system, collages and institutions to change how they teach gender based roles and grant minorities better access.
Retention is the second big issue. A number of diverse people entering into the tech world sometimes don’t feel included and end up leaving – in fact a recent Harvard Business Review report found that 52% of women working in tech end up leaving. What I’m seeing at a lot of companies is that although their recruitment initiatives may be diverse, they fail to do more – it doesn’t matter how much effort is put into attracting and securing diverse talent initially if when the candidates start work they don’t feel included. Having a culture of inclusiveness and being able to provide an ecosystem where diversity of thought helps to fuel innovation will ensure all candidates see the value of a company from within.
Finally: training. I believe that in order to change company culture, training on biases and different cultures and setting strategic goals is the only thing that helps.
4. What inclusive hiring strategies do you see as key for closing the STEM diversity gap?
Succession planning. Parity is important; in a typical company there might be a lot of women who work in HR or marketing, for example, but the engineering team might be less well established on this front. Looking at opportunities for succession planning and creating hybrid roles – such as project managers or systems engineers – where those with some technical skills can be trained up from different business areas is a highly strategic move. Existing resources – people who already work for a company and know the systems – make great candidates who can be moved into new roles with the right training.
Also be vigilant against overlooking talented individuals during the recruitment stage – look for opportunities where someone could be an asset to a company even without specific skills. Often these individuals are more multidimensional than traditional candidates; so be more diverse in hiring strategies in order to create diversity.
Job descriptions are often very exclusive as well. A lot of companies need to make job descriptions more accessible to people, they need to change the language and be less regimental when it comes to specific requirements. But changing a job description is one thing, living and breathing a new culture something else; they need to be done in tandem.
5. What is your advice to diverse talent looking to join or progress within the STEM sector?
I personally know that the conversations occurring between diverse candidates when they are job searching focus on a need to be better than, or twice as good as, the status quo in a particular industry. I think that’s unfair, but I’ve given that advice too because it is the reality for some. It’s sad that this is the conversation that goes on within minority communities,
But my key piece of advice to someone who’s diverse is that they network. Obviously having a ‘seat at the table’ is important, as a lot of tech jobs are garnered by people who know people. Having a network is everything in tech inclusion. Minorities obviously need skills but they also need access to a network.