Challenged Backgrounds: Tech’s Diversity Problem No One Talks About

We talk about diversity and inclusion, but as a well-funded and supposedly progressive industry, we’re still underserving society’s most vulnerable people.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion within the technology industry, we tend to think about certain well-known groupings — we tend to think about diversity and inclusion of gender, sexuality, race, religion, and age. We also know that the technology industry has problems with diversity and inclusion, when we really shouldn’t. For an industry that exists specifically to be innovative, forward thinking, and supposedly attracts minds that are more intelligent than others, having any individual denied opportunity because of prejudgement seems peculiar at best.

If we unpick the idea of diversity and inclusion, what we’re really saying is that in terms of diversity, an organisation should have employees or members that are as qualitatively diverse as the market or economy that it serves. A UK-based tech team that employs exclusively white, male, straight, young men is not reflective of what the UK actually looks like, hence it is not diverse. Inclusivity considers the other side of this in that if you build a diverse team, do you give equal weight — i.e. do you “include” — teams members as equal members. You might have a team that does reflect what the UK looks like, but is there an inherit bias in that team that means the white, male, straight, men are listened to more often than the others?

Even if you can solve those problems — and people do — there is another diversity issue within the technology industry in that we are not good at people who have come from “challenged backgrounds”.

This term relates to the idea that if you want a job in IT, if you happened to grow up in a “good” home, went to a “good” school, went to a “good” university and got a “good” grade, it is very easy to get a job in IT. In reality, it’s very easy to get a job that is well paid in IT — no one who works in the IT industry is worried about whether they are making a living wage or not, something that is manifestly not true in other industries.

If you came from a more challenged background — i.e. one where as an individual you faced challenges in your early life, it’s much, much harder to get a job in IT because we have within the industry built up barriers that only allow people from “good” backgrounds in. If you happened to be a kid who suffered neglect, developed mental health issues as a result, found yourself in care, didn’t get support or mentoring to find your way to university, saw that your only friends who had money were getting it from stealing, collected a criminal record along the way, it doesn’t matter how bright or talented you are, a career within IT is closed off to you. If you happen to be a woman, or gay, or a person of colour as well — you can pretty much forget about having an easy ride even if you can convince an employer in IT to give you a chance.

There are a million and one ways in which an individual can be challenged as they grow up. Social workers call these “adverse childhood experiences”, or ACEs, and are described as stressful or traumatic experiences that have a huge impact both in early adulthood, and as the individual grows up and — relevantly here — needs to access the job market. Abuse, neglect, or growing up in a household where there are issues with parental mental health, substance or alcohol misuse, domestic violence, or even just separation all contribute to ACEs. What happens though is that issues overlay and feed into each other, creating a spiral of problems and more repeated, entrenched, and novel challenges. No one chooses to become homeless, or develop substance misuse problems, or get a criminal record — but people who do can normally trace that problem back to a high incidence of childhood ACEs that sets up vulnerability, which sets up the first challenge without the resources to resolve it properly, which sets up the second challenge, and so on.

People though, when challenged, recover. And this is where as an industry we simply do not do enough. We hear that someone has a criminal record and move onto the next CV on the pile, when there can be a million and one reasons why someone has unspent convictions and if we just listened to their story we might find them to be the best person for the job.

Or what about that person who is neurodiverse, or has social anxiety and finds it all but impossible to work in an office, or was trafficked into the country and forced into modern slavery before they had a chance to get an education? We can describe people with challenged backgrounds as “disadvantaged in the job market”, but that disadvantage is fundamentally our choice. We don’t have to disadvantage *anyone*.

As an industry, we have to start looking at this side of diversity, and start bringing down the barriers so that people who have challenged backgrounds are not disadvantaged. It’s easy to build a business case around diversity, if you’re so minded — IT has a tremendous problem with skills gap, and by including only those from “good” backgrounds, we’re straightforwardly missing out on people we could hire. But, really, we don’t need a “business case for diversity” — everyone, regardless of background, deserves an opportunity.

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