Who is opening doors for underrepresented communities in tech?Blathnaid O’Deaon April 28, 2022 at 14:00 Silicon RepublicSilicon Republic

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Yesterday, (April 27), IrishJobs.ie and autism charity AsIAm introduced a set of guidelines for employers to make their workplaces more accommodating for people with autism. Last March, a report from the same two bodies found that nine in 10 people said their autism made it difficult for them to get a job.

The Same Chance Commitment can be signed via AsIAm’s website. By signing it, employers agree to develop more inclusive recruitment processes, embed autism-friendly practices in their everyday operations, provide training for people with autism and promote autism-friendly hiring practices in Ireland.

According to Rob Enslin, president of global customer operations at Google Cloud, employers who overlook candidates with autism for tech careers are missing out. Google Cloud runs an Autism Career Programme, which aims to support people with autism as they work in the growing cloud industry. Launching the initiative last July, Enslin said he had been working with neurodiverse people for years, having had a family friend whose son struggled to find a workplace that accepted his autism.

“Individuals with autism can be highly-functioning and contributing professionals in any organisation. Too often, though, the interview process can pose challenges due to unconscious bias from a hiring manager or interviewer, for example, if the candidate doesn’t look an interviewer in the eyes or asks for additional time to complete a test. This bias often unintentionally marginalises great candidates and means businesses miss out on valuable talent who can contribute and enrich the workplace.”

As part of the programme, Google Cloud works with the Stanford Neurodiversity Project (part of the Stanford University School of Medicine), which provides consultation services to employers to advise on opportunities for neurodiverse people in the workplace.

The initiative has also aimed to train up to 500 Google Cloud managers who are involved in hiring processes with a view to making hiring more inclusive and effective for candidates with autism. Stanford provides coaching to applicants, as well as ongoing support for them, their teammates and managers once they join the Google Cloud team.

Orla Moran, general manager, IrishJobs.ie and Adam Harris, CEO, AsIAm launching the Same Chance Commitment.

But it’s not just people with autism who are finding it difficult to access the workplace. It is the same for people with disabilities, refugees, asylum seekers and others who face financial or socio-political barriers to employment.

Luckily, some Irish-based employers have already begun to recognise that the workplace needs more diversity. Last year, more than 40 companies including Eir, Deloitte, BT, Accenture and Aviva, signed a contract pledging that they would commit to greater diversity and inclusion. The contract was designed by non-profit national network Business in the Community Ireland (BITCI). It included commitments such as disability confidence training and gender pay gap analyses.

There are also a number of initiatives designed for people from specific underrepresented communities. Some, like Google Cloud’s Autism Career Programme, are developed by companies themselves, while others were set up by non-profit organisations.

Irish non-profit the Open Doors Initiative is a group of more than 100 members, which includes private companies and NGOs. Since its establishment in 2018, it has helped more than 16,800 people access workplace and training supports through bespoke projects such as Employers for Change and Towards Work.

Its members, or “corporate citizens,” sign a pledge on joining promising to provide “training, placements, apprenticeships, community supports and employment opportunities for those people most in need in Irish society.”

The non-profit’s members include major employers such as AIB, Accenture, Cpl, Microsoft, IDA Ireland and Salesforce. It also includes education providers IT Sligo, University College Dublin and TU Dublin.

Another Irish non-profit, Rethink Ireland, created the Ability to Work Fund to support people with disabilities accessing employment. The fund was created alongside financial services group State Street and the Departments of Social Protection and Rural and Community Development.

It provides €1.5 million funding over three years to four Irish non-profit organisations who are helping to develop the talents and skills of those living with a disability.

Increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities is one of the most pressing social issues facing our society. Businesses can help address this by making a stronger effort to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities – PADDY SMYTH

The Dublin Simon Community’s Employability Pathways programme is one of the beneficiaries of the fund. It focuses on people with disabilities experiencing homelessness, offering them literacy, numeracy and IT classes as well as other personalised supports.

Another beneficiary is Ireland’s neurodiversity simulated workplace environment, called the Not So Different Creative Hub. It showcases what neurodiverse candidates can offer to employers, while offering training and support to neurodiverse jobseekers.

WALK and its subsidiary, Walkinstown Green Social Enterprises (WGSE), provide education, training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities or who face other barriers to employment through gardening and outdoor work. It also provides a bridge to mainstream employment.

University College Cork’s Disability Support Service Mentoring Programme also benefitted from the Ability to Work fund. The programme matches students registered with the disability support services to a professional mentor for an academic year. The mentor meets with the student regularly.

Last September marked the fund’s first year in operation. Speaking at the time, Irish disability activist Paddy Smyth said that “Increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities is one of the most pressing social issues facing our society. Businesses can help address this by making a stronger effort to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”

In its first year the Ability to Work fund helped 46 people with disabilities secure a work placement. A further 117 people undertook workplace training, while 77 participated in an Employability Pathways programme.

Commenting on his company’s support for the Ability to Work Fund, Tadhg Young, Ireland country head, State Street, said that it aimed to “enable more people with a visible or invisible disability to access and gain employment” as part of its corporate social responsibility programme.

Other employers, including tech major names, Nokia and Google have also stepped up to the plate to reach out to people who may otherwise find it very difficult to get a job.

Bias often unintentionally marginalises great candidates and means businesses miss out on valuable talent who can contribute and enrich the workplace – ROB ENSLIN

Nokia works with global online training platform Udacity and non-profit Blacks In Technology (BIT) Foundation to provide scholarships for underrepresented communities in tech. The programme was launched last August. It provides more than 300 scholarships for fully flexible online programmes covering a broad range of core tech competencies, from cloud computing and programming to AI and data science.

The scholarships are open to anyone anywhere in the world. Nokia is working with its African-American employee resource group, Advancing Black Leadership and Excellence, to promote the initiative. Scholarship recipients will also have access to support and networking provided by the BIT Foundation including mentorship, tutoring, and post completion career support resources.

“Education is one of the most important ways for us to help remove the barriers to diversity in tech. By providing access to resources that are designed to nurture and develop people’s skills, we can help get more Black talent into the technology space,” said Dennis Schultz, executive director at the BIT Foundation.

Cork-based company Zartis also runs scholarship programmes aimed at migrants and refugees. The Irish tech consultancy’s Level Up programme has seen it work with the Code Institute and the Digital Marketing Institute to provide free training and mentoring to European-based refugees and migrants. Level Up was launched four years ago, and earlier this year it set up a programme aimed at women in tech.

The Level Up: Women In Tech scholarship offers coding scholarships to women. There’s also digital marketing scholarships available for everyone as part of Level Up’s 2022 offering.

Refugees and asylum seekers are among the most marginalised people in Irish society… Education is a doorway to inclusion, connection, and dignity – JOHN LANNON

Also in 2022, three Irish non-profits banded together in January to launch an online portal for migrants and refugees to access training and education programmes. The SaorEd portal is run by Doras, New Horizon and Dignity Partnership. It is built on the Kiron online learning platform which was designed specifically for refugees and underserved communities and is already widely used in the Middle East and Europe.

The resource provides free courses in the English language, IT, healthcare and general skills in several different languages including Arabic, German and Spanish.

The IT skills part of the portal will cover basic digital skills through in English and Arabic, as well as intermediate IT skills (including a course on ‘Living in a Digital World’). SaorEd also offers more advanced courses like web design with HTML, CSS and Javascript.

According to John Lannon, Doras CEO, the portal was set up to be as convenient as possible for people living in Direct Provision centres across the country. It can also be used by people who face financial barriers to education or who may not be entitled to the Back to Education Allowance.

“Refugees and asylum seekers are among the most marginalised people in Irish society… Education is a doorway to inclusion, connection, and dignity. It opens up doorways of possibility and opportunity that are so critical for people who are often fleeing war, poverty and persecution,” added Lannon.

He appealed for employers and partners to come on board and help out if they could.

It is important to note that the pandemic and the resulting public health restrictions and mass-adoption of remote working greatly impacted society’s ability to concentrate on underrepresented communities in tech. The unprecedented change in the way we worked meant tech innovators and employers were mostly concerned with adjusting to having a distributed workforce.

Last November, a report by Employers For Change, a group working with the Open Doors Initiative, found that while remote working could remove barriers for workers with disabilities, it should not be considered a replacement for practical accommodations. This could apply to all underrepresented communities in the workplace. Out of sight should not mean out of mind.

We should all have the same opportunities in the workplace no matter what our background is or what we look like. But, as some companies look at their bottom lines, the idea of hiring candidates who might have different needs or abilities can fall far down their priority list.

It’s a shame, because employers who overlook candidates based on their diagnostic history or their country of origin or their physical ability is causing the tech industry to lose out. Technology ­– like most developing industries – is only as good as the people who make it. If some people cannot access the workplace, the whole world misses out.

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