Nov 17 2022

How University IT Leaders Can Support Marginalized Communities

Supporting marginalized communities within a university IT department means prioritizing mentorship, recruitment and community.

I visited the University of California, Berkeley with my dad and younger brother when I was 11 years old, and afterward, I told my dad that I was going to go to school there. I was so moved by students in cafes, the bustling scene on Sproul Plaza and the majestic landscape. I knew that I belonged there.

I was accepted as a transfer student from Los Angeles City College, moved up early and secured a job supporting a future Nobel laureate. I put myself through undergraduate and then graduate school at UC Berkeley.

I’m Latinx with light privilege and grew up in East Los Angeles. I have a trauma-informed and restorative justice background after losing my younger brother to neighborhood violence 15 years ago. It may sound strange, but the workplace is not without trauma, and these principles are fundamental tools that I bring to work every day.

I chose a career path in technology over 25 years ago because I have a vision to create transformational technology solutions that solve real problems. Public higher education appealed to me because of my strong passion to provide opportunity to underserved communities.

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The Role of the Latinx Community in Higher Education

Latinx women in higher education IT leadership are nonexistent, in my experience, and that is a tragedy. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study, Latinas are still the least represented minority at the vice presidential level and above, yet Latinx/Chicanx account for 18.5 percent of the U.S. population.

UC Berkeley announced its strategic initiative to become a Hispanic-serving institution by 2027, with a faculty and staff body that reflects the student population.

My career as a woman of color in technology has been both exhilarating and heartbreaking. I’ve witnessed talented folks leave quietly because they did not have a voice. I experienced the stigma of going public after enduring gender-based harassment. I witnessed the campuswide adoption of a cloud-based learning analytics platform that I managed from the ground up.

All of this is to say that a long career is going to be bittersweet.

How to Support Marginalized Communities Within IT Departments

To be successful in higher ed IT, it is critical to understand and acknowledge your organizational ethics and practices — to understand the culture that you are a part so you can own it and make it better. The tension here is that if you have been very successful within the predominant culture, you most likely do not want it to change.

I believe that true leadership includes embracing this uncomfortable change, even if you previously benefited from the status quo, to raise the collective good. So what can university IT leaders do to support marginalized communities within their IT departments?

READ MORE: How universities can recruit and retain diversity in tech fields.

Create the necessary infrastructure for formal and structured mentorship networks, and tie performance criteria to this infrastructure to enable much needed engagement across the organization.

Too often, critical mentoring work is performed by those who know that it is important, but it’s not tied to performance reviews, metrics and outcomes for both the mentor and mentee. If we make it a priority in our higher ed IT organizations, then it will be.

Build mentorship activities into the job descriptions for C-suite leaders and recruitment. Establish mentoring as a serious, funded program with structure, metrics and outcomes. Provide periodic benchmarking assessments to ascertain if the program is working and decide what might be needed.

Invest in Recruitment and Support for Underserved Groups

Recruiting is another important tool to support underserved groups and is the most important activity that we undertake as leaders. Yes, it’s expensive and time-consuming to do it right, but it is so worth it.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to recruitment: If there are two strong finalists and I can hire only one, I commit to helping the second candidate find another position. That’s how seriously I take recruiting and the candidates’ experience.

For key recruitments, use an external recruiting firm. In my experience, they provide a level of ethics that may be absent otherwise, due to organizational demands and a myopic organizational view.

When conducting candidate interviews, share questions with the candidates in advance. Interviews can be performative; remove that possibility by enabling all of your candidates to be thoughtful and prepared. Their preparation says a lot about them too.

Employee resource groups are one of the best ways for underrepresented staff to create community and a shared experience. ERGs have been around for a long time in the corporate world, with mixed success. Often, they are touted as a “perk” for prospective candidates from underrepresented groups. Ideally, ERGs are used to create strong professional networks and pave the way for open discussions about workplace obstacles for underrepresented staff.

ERGs can be powerful change agents, but to be effective, they need the support and ear of an executive sponsor. Leaders need to fund ERGs, support them, listen to them and publicly acknowledge the work of their members.

Eventually, strong ERGs can provide best practices for recruitment, promote professional development among underrepresented staff, and help create a more inclusive and aware organization.

UP NEXT: How to use analytics in support of university DEI goals.

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