Breaking Through Social Barriers to Employment
Oct 21, 2022
Editor’s Note: The following is the third in a series of articles written by members of the Arena Analytics Ethics Advisory Board examining barriers to employment in today’s workforce. Arena strives to take a highly ethical approach toward using advanced technology to create long-term change in the workforce by eliminating obstacles to opportunity and success for individuals and organizations alike. We are grateful to our Ethics Advisory Board members for their rigorous, ongoing commitment to helping us achieve that vision.
In the before-times (pre-Covid), I was taking a ride-share from a business meeting to the airport. After settling into the back seat, I politely asked the friendly driver my usual questions: How long have you been driving? Is this your only gig? What is your main gig, or what do you aspire to? I love hearing people’s stories and try to listen more than I talk.
This particular afternoon, my driver was a young woman who was a slam poet and wanted to write a screenplay. The problem, she said, was that none of her poet friends were interested in anything beyond slam poetry. She had signed up for a community college class on screenwriting but was struggling with a lack of support from her friends and family.
I suggested that maybe there were one or even two people in class who could be new writer friends. She instantly grasped the idea of using the class not just as a way to learn new skills but to grow her network and was excited about this new perspective.
Her new networking opportunity seemed fairly obvious from the outside, but when faced with big changes sometimes all we can see is the wall looming ahead, not the smaller stepping stones right in front of us. We’ve been taught to leap over hurdles, but what if the stepping stones actually lead around the hurdle, or somewhere even better? Worse, what if our current networks only underscore the height of the wall, rather than giving us that new perspective?
Networks can be self-reinforcing rather than expansive
Sometimes our networks function more as a self-reinforcing bubble than a springboard for our curiosity or ambition. This young woman had the resources to sign up for a class and understood the value of supportive friends. She felt comfortable in approaching fellow students in order to build her network. She just needed help seeing what was possible.
Networks that are time or situation specific—high school or childhood friends, co-workers, church or school groups, for example—don’t always translate into other situations. Group identity is so important but can also prevent us from “individuating” from the group in order to find a career or other situation that is more suited to our skills and needs.
Self-help and industry jargon can make simple truths more complicated
The jargon around networking can feel elitist and off-putting. The truism “It’s all about who you know” is not helpful if you don’t know those people yet, let alone how to meet them. Drawing a network diagram is a simple tool to help uncover people and resources we have access to but may not be aware of. Sometimes it takes an expensive workshop to even learn that technique, though.
How do people like the young woman driving in her spare time get the memo on how to find what and who she needs?
How do any of us hear or find the message that we can be more than our surroundings tell us we can be?
On the bright side, there is a growing body of free resources like podcasts and YouTube videos that break down otherwise opaque processes for expanding one’s network. It does take a certain amount of self-motivation and even serendipity to find the right tool. As Louis Pasteur put it, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Group identities sometimes mask the potential value of individual connections
I have been part of exclusive groups and have benefited personally from the (conditional) camaraderie that kind of identity fosters. The heady feeling of being “In with the In Crowd” is the stuff of adolescent dreams and is hard to give up.
Being part of a group with a strong identity can propel us through years of feeling inadequate or just overwhelmed, giving greater meaning (as defined by the group) to our struggles. Some groups are led by charismatic “leaders” who need lots of “followers” to feel powerful. Too often, people sacrifice their own potential for the comfort of a group identity. Others conflate group “belonging” with having a reliable personal network.
Many choose to stay in these groups for far too long, to their own detriment. But we all graduate or leave school eventually. There comes a time, even in good groups, when we know it is time to leave.
One important lesson I have learned in that context is to separate the friends I have made from the group as a whole. It is possible to stay connected to those who truly matter even as the group dissolves or we depart. These connections are incredibly valuable in navigating the transition from the often painful loss of group identity into forming our own stable networks.
All my proposed solutions to every social issue will include advocacy for strong, robustly resourced public education, at every level and in every community. I will also always, at some point, advocate for the value of treating all children as our own. This is the ethical bedrock on which to create a society where all can benefit from the free flow of opportunities. Building networks that enable us to lead fulfilling lives is the opposite of a zero-sum game—by definition, the more true connections we all have, the better off we all are.
In terms of Arena’s mission and platform, there may be opportunities to offer applicants a selection of resources on building networks, and expanding existing networks.