How does bias in education show up in corporate America?

Posted in: Diversity, News, Staffing

By: Indea Snorden

This blog is in support of our “Inclusive Hiring Practices” webinar on July 14, 2021, at 2 pm. We will explore bias in education, job listings, and, in the vetting process to find ways companies can be more equitable in the way they hire workers from diverse backgrounds. Click here to register.

It didn’t take me long to notice the bias in education. In the 4th grade, my parents sold their home in a middle-class neighborhood, and we moved to a “township” district school to provide me and my brother with a better education than the traditional public schools. My parents received a letter that I was gifted in math and science and that I was accepted into the gifted track in the 4th grade. From the 4th grade through to the 8th grade, I was the only African American child in my courses. I learned how to solve LSAT-type problems at 10 years old. I learned how to solve problems critically and analytically. By the time I was in the Eighth grade, my father exposed me to summer programs that helped me to understand and be excited about engineering. 

By the end of the 8th grade, I knew I wanted to be an engineer.

When I began my secondary education, majoring in engineering, I was in a multicultural environment. Between 1-3 percent of the students within the college’s engineering program were African American and these percentages are about the same or lower to this day. I was the only African American in most of my courses. I could not figure out why some students did not want to partner with me or even study with me. One of those same students was drunk when he let me know that he didn’t need to study for his exams or in his labs. He told me his father knew the dean of the school and most of the professors. Thus, he and all of his friends had access to all the answers to his exams for the entire year. I ended up being 1 of 3 African American female engineers to graduate from my college.

I was accepted to one of the top engineering schools in the country because my father taught me integrity was the most important character quality to have. I knew how important it was to put in the necessary work required to obtain my degree. I also understood that nothing would be handed to me without hard work. While in college, I was able to find inclusion within the Asian community. They saw me as a human being who could contribute to their educational and life experience; they embraced me and respected me for my technical knowledge and skills. When we embrace the diversity in others, it frees us to embrace our own unique gifts. 

While in my first job within technology sales out of college, my white male manager came to me one day and said “Indea, because you are so good at building territories that succeed, we are going to give your territory to Bob that is retiring. You are smart enough, you can find another job, and rebuild another territory.” While at the company, I consistently performed above quota and within my first year of selling, created national-level million-dollar accounts from scratch. 

I felt used, abused, and thrown away by someone that earned something that they hadn’t worked for. I felt like my feelings didn’t matter, my hard work didn’t matter, and I was just there to produce like a robot; something not human. We are expected to do double the work of our white counterparts and earn 50-75% of what they get paid. In addition, whenever I shared any of this with my white counterparts, they would shrug it off as that is just a bad apple. What we all need to know and believe is that we have failed our nation by continuing to sweep under the rug systemic racism and implicit bias within our entire system. Equal pay is a great first start to move the needle toward equity.

I moved on to another role at a consumer products company where I saved the company over $14 Million a year by making their manufacturing operations lean and by shifting their culture and product production towards a customer-centric model. 

That year, I ended up changing managers three times because of re-orgs within the company. I inherited a white male manager the third time, he told me that “I was too young to be making this type of money (nearly six figures). I never made that much at your age”, he said. 

He used his power to push me out of the company and took over all the hard work that I did on the lean engineering initiative at the company. These are not just one-offs; this is a part of a system that is flawed. 

Unfortunately, the system rewards people in leadership for not developing the best talent of color once they come in, allows these leaders to take credit for work they didn’t do, and find reasons not to promote people of color. It reinforces the bias in education people of color already face.

We need to hold people accountable for their lack of equitable seats at the table for all diverse groups, especially underrepresented groups like African Americans. In February 2021, McKinsey did a study on Race in the workplace: The Black Experience in the US private sector. Overall, they found that Black workers are underrepresented in the highest-growth geographies and the highest-paying industries. Meanwhile, they are overrepresented in low-growth geographies and in

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frontline jobs, which tend to pay less.

After my experiences, I took a break from Corporate America to learn how to increase the pipeline for underrepresented workers of color into the STEM workforce, to fight the bias in education head on. I helped to create a high-performing college-prep charter middle school for students of color in the inner city. I quickly learned three things: 1) students of color perform at the level that you set their academic expectations. 2) if you consistently create a safe, fun learning culture that focuses on clear boundaries for student behavior, they will hold themselves and others accountable to keep their environment (classroom) effective for learning. 3) If you expose students to what is possible for them, they will be motivated to achieve.

While in education, I also learned that there was an imbalance of young black male students that were being sent to special education. This was not for their inability to learn, but, for their behavior. The disappointing part is that there were a staggering number of African American boys that were not allowed to get out of the “special education” stigma once they were in the system. Their best path out was a recommendation (by their counselors) to a path that only led to a trade school or community college. Our charter school, which required every student to get accepted into a 4-year college or university as one option before graduating, implemented a merit/demerit system for students. This allowed students to correct their behaviors, with the proper guidance, while still giving them the chance to learn at the same high level as other students. 

They were not removed from the classroom, just removed from the fun activities. Students that misbehaved would have to apologize to their peers and they had to be invited back into the school culture, to wear the uniforms again, when their peers could trust them to keep their learning sanctuary safe.

When the 6-12 school opened, only 40% of the students (all black and Hispanic) were passing Math and English. 

After I implemented my strategies consistently over 6-8 weeks, 82% of the students were passing Math and English. I implemented several intentional academic high expectations for all students with specific daily analytics (like in corporate America) for academic results, as well as strict expectations for behavior. I proved that students can learn, grow and excel when put into high expectation environments where they are loved, accepted, encouraged, and believed in to succeed.

What made my experience with the young students of color unique, was that as their teacher, I could tell them that I was an engineer, worked in corporate America, and made six figures during my career. They were in amazement and most students had never met an African American engineer, must less an African American female engineer. I let them know that I had to work hard in school, and I showed them step by step, how I got to where I am.

I left the education world to pursue my MBA. While in business school, I was recruited by the Dean of the business school to be on a task force to attempt to minimize hate crimes on campus. The Dean began to send me reports that showed that many hate crimes were going on and not being reported at all as hate crimes. 

The men that were doing these crimes were only being reported by the campus police as mischief instead of being reported as the federal criminal acts that they were. Not one person that committed hate crimes at the college level was being held accountable for their crimes against people of color. Instead, they were being rewarded with degrees in higher education and access to leadership roles within their respective companies.

What type of culture are we creating in America that allows crimes to be committed, privilege to be misused, and hate to be perpetuated without any punishment? How can we say that we fight against corruption on foreign soil, but our domestic souls are eroding?  

A few solutions for corporations to consider:

  1. Equal pay for all races and genders based on what has been paid to their non-minority counterparts for doing the job.
  2. Policies, accountability measures, and incentives need to be enforced to balance equity and power. Because of the abuse of power and the inability within key power structures to do the right thing, strategies need to be put in place if the policies are not achieved and the needle moved in certain quantitative areas each year.
  3. Seek out and elevate the best and the brightest talent; focus on retention by providing continuous leadership development.  There is a difference between transactional leadership and transformational leadership. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs can hold people in power and leadership accountable for their decisions in bringing in qualified people of color instead of just hiring people that look like them. However, DEI programs should not create a culture of just maintaining a “quota” or “percentage” of employees of color. When people are put into leadership positions, their performance reviews need to have metrics that require/incentivize for bringing in the best diverse employees and for bringing out the best in their diverse employees through professional leadership development. They need to be trained that leaders are brokers of resources. 
  4. Every leader should be rewarded for mentoring underrepresented students and/or employees of color on how to succeed in their careers. When employees are exposed to underrepresented employees of color and have a vested interest in their success, this gives both sides exposure to the very best across culture lines and can assist each other in bridging the gaps toward common humanity and healing within our nation.
  5. Corporations should invest in analytics and technology to assist teachers in teaching and sustaining analytical skills within 4-12 education.  In Arizona and Alabama, several corporations, including Apple and Microsoft, invested in the K-12 schools. The ConnectED initiative was launched under the Obama administration to accelerate on-site internet access and teacher technology training in 2013. This was great progress toward the educational inputs of creating digital norms in the classroom.

Now we need to invest in making sure that there is analytics to measure the outputs (an increase in the pipeline of people of color into the STEM fields) and drive success. If companies want to compete within innovation, they must hire people that have leadership, character, collaboration, critical thinking, and many other skills to sustain us into the future. There is an article written by America Succeeds organization about the High Demand for Durable Skills that speaks about this very issue, you can click here to read it.

Fighting the bias in education is critical to meeting our needs in the future. Many of the workers who could fill our highest demand needs aren’t getting a chance to develop the skills we need them for. If they can’t get a seat in the classroom, it becomes much harder for them to get a seat at the table later in life. Providing them with these opportunities will provide businesses with the skilled workers they need to meet the demands of tomorrow.