How to move the “big rock” of inclusion in tech

Companies need talent; creating pathways for underrepresented communities can help fill the gap.

Canadian tech is facing a deep tech talent shortage and government leaders tend to want to fill this gap with foreign talent. But plans to draw from the international worker pool ignore the talent in our own backyard, including underrepresented communities across Canada.

Another hurdle also persists: many tech companies are unaware of what inclusion actually looks like for members of these communities. Similarly, many existing attempts at inclusion don’t take into account holistic impact.

Pablo Listingart, Executive Director of digital skills school ComIT, has built a unique perspective on this challenge, first as an immigrant who built a career in tech and now as someone focused on connecting tech communities and developing digital skills across Canada. Speaking with BetaKit, Listingart shared more about what he’s learned is necessary to continue pushing inclusion forward. 

More through the door

Through the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid digitization that followed, unfortunately little has changed in Canada for members of underrepresented and historically marginalized groups. For example, unemployment is still higher among Indigenous communities than other populations, while LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience professional devaluation, meaning their skills are not as respected even if they are equal to or better than their peers. Further, despite representing 3.5 percent of Canada’s population, Black people make up only 2.6 percent of the tech ecosystem.

But more people get into tech if we make space for them. For instance, women only account for around 34 percent of all STEM students and fewer than 25 percent of people working in STEM careers. However, Listingart noted that ComIT’s programs see women accounting for 45 to 55 percent of the group attending classes and getting jobs—this is no accident, since the programming is self-directed, flexible in terms of scheduling, and focused on helping people get a job within weeks.

“It is not a matter of lack of interest, but a lack of flexible opportunities that accommodate a very busy life,” said Listingart. “Many times it has to do with participating in a non-judgemental environment that provides flexibility for people who are going through different life situations.”

Flexible fits

ComIT’s programming demonstrates that focusing on holistic impact—by designing a program to help people achieve an outcome while factoring in life’s various challenges—can drive results. Yet Listingart said he doesn’t see this in many other existing inclusion initiatives. 

For example, many universities offer scholarships for LGBTQ+ students, women, Black people, and Indigenous learners. However, Listingart noted that these programs are often multi-year and on-site, which does not address immediate needs.

“It is not a matter of lack of interest, but a lack of flexible opportunities that accommodate a very busy life.”

Pablo Listingart

“Even if you provide college or university for free, there are people who can’t wait two to four years to start looking for a job,” said Listingart.

Another example: tech companies often have either dedicated hiring resources to source employees from diverse backgrounds, or a mandate to bring more diversity into their organization. However, these companies might miss the big picture. 

For example, Listingart said that many are still only looking for candidates in urban environments or require relocation. ComIT has already demonstrated alternative ways to engage candidates from rural Canada.

Further, Listingart added that many people don’t want to leave their communities solely for a job. They want to stay not just for their own sake but to be present for family, friends, and community members. With that desire, forcing people to move for the sake of a job—even if you really want to hire them—is not true inclusion. 

“There are uninformed decisions like, ‘I should take this person out from their community and bring them to work next to me,’ because I don’t have the information to understand that I shouldn’t be doing that,” said Listingart.

What’s really needed for inclusive hiring is flexibility, said Listingart. He recommends all organizations look at what a job truly requires before deciding whether it needs to be done on-site or simply requires a 24/7 internet connection. For example, there’s little difference if someone delivers lines of code at 1 pm versus 3 pm, provided they meet overall deadlines. On the flip side, an IT security worker likely needs a completely stable and secure connection.

“Being flexible is key in these cases if we are all pro including other people, because we need talent,” said Listingart. 

Diversity comes from inclusion 

Listingart describes this ongoing work for inclusion as pushing a “big rock” up a hill: difficult to start but easier once you get moving. As barriers fall away and your diverse organization grows, that big rock might even pick up speed and start rolling downhill.  

“Diversity comes from inclusion,” said Listingart. “And we tend to forget that, right? The only way to actually achieve true diversity in society is by including those who are on the sides.”

Feature image courtesy Pexels.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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