In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and the protests that followed the senseless death of George Floyd in Minneapolis made millions reflect on their own role in perpetuating social inequity and systemic racism. In 2021, we will act on that newly understood responsibility. We will work across sectors, disciplines and industries to deepen our understanding of systemic problems and collaborate to find meaningful solutions.
This will lead to real change in science and technology. In 2019, Black people made up only three per cent of the UK tech workforce – and only 2.6 per cent of UK technology company board members are from ethnic-minority backgrounds. Attempts to address this critical lack of representation have often been siloed and seen as only a “nice to have”. In 2021 they will be a key focus of companies’ strategies.
Throughout the sector, organisations will move from commitments and aspirations to outlining actionable strategies for increasing internal representation. There will be a stronger emphasis on stripping the bias out of candidate sourcing, hiring, promotions and performance reviews. In particular, companies will be more proactive about reaching outside of their traditional networks to identify outstanding talent from less traditional backgrounds.
In academia and other fields that require postgraduate-level qualifications, such as AI, concrete steps will be taken to increase the numbers of Black people choosing, and given the opportunity, to study science and technology.
This is crucial, because disparities set in long before someone submits a job application or even enters the classroom. In the UK, only 2.2 per cent of school teachers, 0.65 per cent of university professors, and 15 of the 445 people who graduated with postgraduate research degrees in computer science in 2018/19 are Black. This challenge is compounded by narrow curriculums, insufficient role models in leadership positions, a lack of options for promising students and minimal funding for postgraduate study and network-based PhD admissions processes.
There will be a focus on supporting Black students’ attainment in maths and science at GCSE and A Level, and admissions processes at universities will be made fairer. In universities, there will be more support for Black students to progress from Bachelors to Masters to PhD, work-experience schemes supporting Black graduates will be expanded and support for early-career Black researchers will increase.
Many organisations are doing great work: OpenAI offers scholarships to people from under-represented groups who want to study deep learning, and DeepMind, which I work for, has collaborated with more than 20 universities around the world to expand its own scholarship programme – which is focused on increasing representation at the postgraduate level through mentorship and financial support.
Beyond education, charities and other organisations working to address racial injustice in the sector and create opportunities for Black scholars – such as Data Science Africa, Black in AI and Colour in Tech – will see increasing support and engagement.
In 2021, the science and technology sectors will stop looking for quick fixes to address under-representation. Organisations will collaborate across sectors to proactively remove barriers to access and articulate a vision of life for Black people in science and technology at every level. In 2021, we will start to see meaningful change.
Obum Ekeke is global lead, university relations & education partnerships at DeepMind