The computing community has the ability to come together and work together to prevent barriers to inclusion by creating transparency and equal access to opportunities for growth and professional development.
In this Excellence in STEM interview, Dr. Jasmine Berry offers examples of initiatives computing professionals, in both academia and industry, can implement and support to diversify the technology workforce.
Dr. Berry is a Computing Innovations Fellow and Neuro-AI Research Scientist at the Univerity of Michigan’s Laboratory for Profess. Her interests span artificial intelligence applications including using AI to bridge the gap in education resources for K-12 STEM students.
What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?
By now, many people have heard variations of the phrases “Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance” and “Diversity is the mix, inclusion is making the mix work,” especially as it relates to the recent national calls for changes in policy and practices to better human relations in the workplace. Generally, Diversity has also been labeled as a quantifiable fact, with Inclusion being the behavior or practice, and Equity being the goal. My definition of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) stems from my lived experiences working with various teams on CS-adjacent projects.
Equity is fairness in the distribution of resources, opportunities, and privileges regardless of background or identity.
Diversity is an adequate representation of all aspects of perspectives, experiences, and identity (spanning from race and ethnicity to gender and socio-economic status).
Inclusion is assurance that those voices are heard, supported, respected, and valued for optimal team collaboration and contribution.
Not too long ago, we witnessed an exhilarating World Cup Final in Qatar. As a computer scientist who just so happens to be a sports fan, it might be best to illustrate one of the ways I’ve come to understand the importance of EDI in Computing through the game of soccer.
Soccer is a team sport that requires players to work together to achieve a common goal, not completely unlike engineers and scientists working together to execute a research project or build a consumer product. Imagine a soccer team made up of players from diverse backgrounds, with different skill sets. This team may have players from various countries, with divergent cultural backgrounds, different physical abilities, and even perspectives on how to approach the game based on how they grew up playing the sport. For example, a player from a country where soccer is played on smaller fields may bring a new perspective on how to effectively move the ball and maintain possession in tight spaces. Another player who has experience playing with a disability may bring insights into how to improve accessibility for all players.
When these players come together to form a team, they bring their unique outlook, experiences, and strengths to the field. This diversity allows the team to approach problems and challenges of the game from a variety of angles, leading to creative strategies to defeat their opponents. A team that values diversity and recognizes the importance of each player’s contribution will perform better and be more successful than a team that only values a few star players with homogenous training or backgrounds. Similarly, in promoting EDI, it is important to recognize and value the distinctive strengths and contributions of each individual and their respective communities. This means creating an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, and where diversity is celebrated and utilized to create a dynamic, more formidable team. Just as a soccer coach needs to bring out the best in each player, creating an equitable and inclusive environment requires intentional effort, constant evaluation, and a willingness to adjust and improve. Whether on the soccer field or in our computing communities, valuing and empowering a diverse group of individuals leads to better outcomes and production from a vibrant team filled with richer experiences.
This is why equity, diversity, and inclusion are so vital in all areas of life, especially in Computing. By bringing people from different backgrounds and experiences together, we can create more innovative and inclusive software solutions, driving progress that takes into account the present issues of marginalized groups. Additionally, EDI efforts should aim to address systemic issues, such as underrepresentation in the field and a lack of inclusive practices in the workplace and academic institutions. The goal should be to create a community where all individuals can thrive and contribute to the innovation of the field and the art of science. No matter what definition you choose to go with, I think we can all agree that creating such environments that foster an innate sense of belonging is appreciated.
What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?
Barriers to inclusion can take many forms throughout the span of one’s career and can impede their efforts to thrive. Lack of access to support, misrepresentation, unconscious bias, limited opportunities for professional development, and racial discrimination are notably some of the most prevalent.
What are some ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?
It’s important to remember that understanding and appreciation of other’s cultures and backgrounds is a continuous process that requires intentional effort and a willingness to learn via active listening. The computing community can work together to prevent barriers to inclusion by ensuring that all employees have equal opportunities for professional development, advancement, and career growth. Additionally, we should focus on diversifying the technology workforce: Encourage and support the recruitment, retention, and promotion of individuals from underrepresented groups in the technology industry. This can be achieved through initiatives such as 1) mentorship programs that match mentors and mentees based on shared backgrounds, experiences, and career goals, 2) networking and community-building events that engage employees to connect, and 3) and sponsorship programs that provide high-potential employees from underrepresented groups with access to senior leaders, mentorship, and professional development opportunities.
A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?
This is where a sense of belonging, which was mentioned previously, is needed. When people feel as if they belong to a community, they will naturally spend time together, celebrate holidays with each other, acknowledge each other’s accomplishments, etc. Through these gatherings, people will come to understand others’ cultures and values. I also recommend inviting interested parties to seek out resources such as books, articles, podcasts, and films that explore those specific cultures. Another practical recommendation is to attend cultural events and festivals, such as art shows, music performances, and food festivals. Lastly, it remains important to continue allyship training and resources for employees to demonstrate how everyone can support and advocate for underrepresented groups.
Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?
As a black woman in Computing, I was fortunate to have started my early CS years in diverse learning environments that were typically not short of representation. However, it is well-documented that such is not a widespread occurrence for most minorities in tech. It becomes evident early on in one’s career that the power of diverse voices cannot be overstated when creating technical solutions. They’re vital in the nascent stages of the software development life cycle, when requirements are first established. And they’re indispensable to the deployment and maintenance stages where the direct impact on users occurs.
Diverse voices have a significant impact on a project because they 1) improve accessibility and 2) enhance the portrayal and characterization of user needs. Software is meant to serve a wide range of users, and having diverse perspectives in the development process can help ensure that the needs and experiences of all user groups are considered and appropriately addressed.
Not only do you want your technology to positively affect its users but the creators of the project should feel valued and heard as well. Increasing employee engagement and satisfaction will likely result in higher retention rates within the organization and a culturally competent work environment.
Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming and being a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are some ways in which such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them possibly feel tokenized or otherwise made uncomfortable?
This is a great question, and one that I’m glad is being asked. Tokenism is the symbolic or performative effort to include individuals from marginalized groups without addressing systemic barriers and biases that can prevent these individuals from fully participating and succeeding in the field.
For example, a company may hire one or a few individuals from underrepresented groups as a way of demonstrating its commitment to EDI, without taking any meaningful steps to address the issues of discrimination and bias that these individuals may face within the organization. Companies and institutions may ask much from those few people and put pressure on them to over-represent their community in a way that makes them feel like a prop instead of esteemed members of a team. Sometimes those efforts unintentionally backfire, leaving the individual feeling stereotyped, isolated, burned-out, and undervalued for their technical skillset all the while undermining the vision to create a more inclusive workplace environment. Here are some suggestions to avoid making them feel tokenized or uncomfortable:
Encourage active participation from individuals across social boundaries by providing opportunities for them to share their perspectives and experiences in a meaningful way. This may involve preserving safe spaces for discussion and feedback, such as focus groups or town hall meetings, and providing training and support for individuals to effectively vocalize their concerns. Everyone should be encouraged to join, not solely those from marginalized groups, to foster transparent and authentic interactions. With introspection, strategic pathways can be devised to eventually establish policies and procedures for reporting incidents of discrimination with the assurance of full support from the computer science and engineering communities.
Allocate resources and equitable support through mentorship. While tokenism can be addressed in the beginning stages of the hiring process, we should assist equity-seeking populations with support systems tailored to their needs. This might include offering mentorship programs, development opportunities, and providing access to relatable advisers that can guide them in navigating the community. The end goal is to have practices in place for all to have a voice in decision-making and to promote visibility that is not just performative.
More About Dr. Jasmine Berry
Dr. Jasmine Berry is a Computing Innovations Fellow & Neuro-AI Research Scientist at the University of Michigan’s Laboratory for Progress. She works to model the aspects of human cognition for computational machines and robotics using artificial intelligence. She received her B.S. degree in Computer Science from Norfolk State University. Then she pursued Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. Her interests also span using AI for applications in biotech, healthcare, and bridging the educational resource gap for K-12 students in STEM.