We Need People of Color at the Table if We Want Technology Policy That Works for Everyone

Technology is increasingly integrating into our daily lives at a breakneck pace. Although we love the latest apps and enjoy the ability to freely express ourselves online, we must also contend with companies using discriminatory algorithms against the vulnerable, “super spreaders” threatening our democracy with misinformation, and broadband providers charging outrageous prices and fees (even data caps, and yes, even during a pandemic).

These enormous challenges have already sparked a debate about what role technology, and therefore Big Tech, should have in our communities. We’ve also seen how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts people of color and witnessed the 2020 demonstrations protesting excessive force by law enforcement. Both of these events have brought systemic racism into sharp focus in the United States. With the stakes so high and the effects of technology policy so personal, it’s alarming that people of color are not adequately represented in this debate.

If we want to begin correcting historical injustices, advance equitable policy solutions, and make sure technology works fairly for everyone, then we need people of color at the policymaking table so they can voice their perspectives. This is especially true for technology policy, where policies are designed to target technologies developed and deployed in an environment of systemic inequality, sometimes ignoring the very people who will be using (or subject to) that technology.

But what do you do once you realize the importance of having your voice heard in this debate, but you can’t get a seat at the table? How do you enter this field to support your community and the people actually impacted by these policy decisions? The short answer is to secure an entry-level position in the tech policy field. These early-career opportunities offer people a pathway into technology policy, where they can pursue positions of increasing seniority, raise the volume of their voices, and improve their career prospects. This pathway may ultimately help people of color obtain decision-making positions, such as in a presidential administration or at a federal agency, to shape the policies that govern the use of the technology we use every day.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to learn about these positions, let alone obtain one. Without a well-worn path to follow, it can be extremely challenging for people of color to join the conversation and make an impact. This is why we conducted a survey on racial and ethnic diversity in early-career roles and the hiring processes in technology policy nonprofits that seek to influence national policy. We sought to understand some of the barriers that people of color face in securing entry-level positions in our field while also advancing the conversation to remove these barriers. We’ve summarized the stories and experiences so graciously shared with us in our new report, “Diversity in Early-Career Tech Policy Roles: Challenges and Opportunities.”

The research highlighted two barriers to consider to help create a pathway for people of color to join tech policy organizations: a “closed” network, and a lack of early-career hiring data.

Is Tech Policy a Closed Ecosystem?

During our research, we learned that job opportunities are circulated primarily within the tech policy groups and their networks, therefore making access to these networks crucial for entering the field. When asked how they shared job announcements, most organizations responded, “through communication with other tech policy organizations.” The majority of survey respondents said they used this method “very often.” This means that hiring is most often initiated through a network of people in tech policy positions, who may recommend their own contacts in their professional and personal networks for positions at other organizations. 

Employee social and professional networks may reflect the current demographic makeup of an organization, and researchers have noted that social networks remain powerful in shaping career opportunities in ways that can perpetuate racial inequality. If these originating networks are not diverse, mining them for job candidates is not likely to yield a large number of diverse applicants. If tech policy organizations recruit primarily within their own community, job seekers may need to first break into this system to then launch an upward career trajectory.

How Can We Encourage Data Collection?

Our research also highlighted that there is a lack of data on early-career hiring in technology policy nonprofits. Only a small number of the tech policy nonprofits we surveyed actually collected racial demographic data at that time. We also learned that, of the organizations that did collect this data, some did not have policies that permitted them to share this data publicly. It’s difficult for any organization to provide early-career opportunities to diverse candidates if the organization doesn’t track its actions or detail how it would like to move forward. This would be an excellent area for additional research.

What Can We Do Now?

As technology becomes increasingly integrated into our daily lives, it is especially important that people from marginalized communities be able to influence policy decisions and are empowered to raise questions about who benefits and who is harmed by those decisions. Closed networks aren’t the only barrier people of color face when trying to enter or advance their careers in tech policy, but it is one barrier that can be addressed by being more intentional about building enduring relationships with communities of color. 

Learn more about the barriers to entry and possible solutions to increasing diversity in tech policy in our latest report, and check out our recent webinar, “A Seat at the Table: How Tech Policy Groups Can Welcome Diverse Talent,” 

This article was originally written by Tsion Tesfaye and Shiva Stella for Public Knowledge

Tsion Tesfaye

Communications Justice Fellow at Public Knowledge

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