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For 50 Years, Tech Companies Have Tried to Increase Diversity by Fixing People Instead of the System


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Considering the infrastructure of technology companies.

In many early diversity programs at technology companies, there was a disconnect between what the majority-white organizers imagined their programs would accomplish and how the programs themselves were carried out.

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In February, Google announced that it was committing to training 100,000 Black women in digital skills. This announcement arrived as a PR Hail Mary amid the ever-growing industry and academic outcry over Google's firing of prominent, brilliant, respected A.I. researcher Timnit Gebru and recruiter April Christina Curley, both Black women and both exceptional contributors at the company. (Google claims that Gebru resigned; she says she did not.) The backlash occurred during a year of widespread protest against the centuries-old violence of racism and racialized capitalism in the United States.

This is not the first time that a prominent tech organization has attempted to "train up" Black Americans. From 1968 to 1972, at least 18 programs to provide computing skills training to Black and brown Americans were established in the United States. They were located in East Coast and California cities, with one in St. Louis, Missouri. In some cases, they were provided by government or social welfare organizations; others were provided by professional organizations, including the Association for Computing Machinery. The programs often targeted young adults; one offered at Johns Hopkins University enrolled and graduated five Baltimore high school students. Another in the Albany, New York, area enrolled 31 Black students, of whom a third were women. Some of them taught keypunch or mainframe operation, which included batch processing, while others actually aimed to teach computer programming in COBOL or FORTRAN. This era was dominated by mainframe computers, when computer programs were typically communicated to a machine via a series of carefully pre-punched cards, and those programs were run one after another in sequences known as batches. Trainees in a few programs received hands-on experience running the IBM 1401, the (much-heralded) IBM 360 system, and the IBM 7030. Though their operations (and quality) varied by site, most programs were connected to the ACM; for example, members organized and volunteered in programs, and others reported on these training efforts at ACM conferences. At the national level, the organization launched the Committee on Computing and the Disadvantaged.

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