Nov 1, 2022 - Technology

Exclusive: New effort aims to craft policy to diversify tech

Illustration of a pattern of briefcases in different skintones.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The Kapor Foundation, which has spent years trying to raise awareness around racial disparities in the tech industry, is launching a new push to explore what types of policy changes could lead to greater equity.

Why it matters: Years of efforts haven't led to significant changes in the demographics at tech companies large and small.

"What we have focused on for years is trying to call attention to lack of diversity in tech," Kapor Foundation CEO Allison Scott told Axios, previewing the program it is announcing publicly Tuesday. "We haven’t had an explicit focus on policy."

Details: Scott said the center's new Equitable Technology Policy Initiative is taking a broad approach to improving public policy.

  • She said it is open to funding everything from researchers studying algorithmic bias to organizations helping develop the next generation of policy makers to those trying to find new ways to increase accountability.

By the numbers: The center said it has already made $5 million in grants to organizations doing work in the area.

  • Among those who have gotten funding are Algorithmic Justice League, Disinfo Defense League, Consumer Reports Digital Lab and DAIR Institute.

The big picture: The foundation's years of work may not have yet changed the overall makeup of the tech workforce, Scott said, but the organization has learned that some approaches are more effective than others, including:

  • Programs that look beyond hiring and also address belonging, advancement, pay and harassment.
  • Having full support at the board and CEO level, as well as tangible accountability for executives.
  • Apprenticeships can also help, but the U.S. has lagged other countries in creating large-scale programs.
  • Workers within large tech companies have shown potential for introducing change as well, Scott said, pointing to both individual whistleblowers as well as organized labor pushes, such as the Alphabet Workers Union.

Between the lines: The tech industry's increasingly broad and deep impact on society makes this work more urgent, Scott said. Having people of color underrepresented in the tech industry not only means that people are missing out on good jobs, but also raises the risk that the industry's output will perpetuate and automate existing disparities.

What's next: Scott cautions that diversity efforts could get sidelined as the economy weakens, especially if they are seen as "nice-to-haves" rather than core to a business's success.

  • "We could see regressions in some of the areas we think are important." Scott said.
  • The political environment has also shifted, Scott said, noting that in summer 2020, many companies announced programs to address racial inequity in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
  • Some companies have failed to meet their stated goals, said Lili Gangas, the Kapor Center's chief technology community officer. "It’s time to check the receipts," she said. "I’m really concerned we are going to lose the momentum."
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