Editor’s Note: The following is the first 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.
Growing up, there were three career paths in my family: You could either become a farmer, join the military, or do nothing. I say that only half-joking. While there were people who took different paths, it seemed pretty clear to me that I would be taking the military path, considering both of my parents were on active duty.
I had a wild imagination when it came to my career. At one point, it was a doctor. Then advertising and a million more careers I won’t list to avoid embarrassing myself. With every path I considered, my mom would seek out someone in the military who had done that job. “See? You can do anything in the Army,” she would say proudly after the handshakes and hellos.
The purpose of selling a military career was two-fold for my mom. First, the military was a reliable job. In fact, that’s how she ended up in a uniform in the 1980s - it was the only reliable career path she knew about. Her father and grandfather were lifetime military officers. Second, the Army would pay for college. Both good enough reasons to do whatever I dreamed of in a uniform. I couldn’t imagine a career path without the military.
To Be All That You Can Be, or Not to Be All That You Can Be
As much as I remember imagining my military career, I can also recount the day I realized that wouldn’t be happening. It was the afternoon of a sunny Saturday, and I heard the house phone ring. I ran to answer only to hear my mother on the other side of the line. “Put the phone down, Katrina.” I quickly hung up without question and ran to a spot just far enough away from her door that she wouldn’t see me. I wanted to know who was calling and why she wouldn’t let me hear.
“This is (official title of Mom redacted), and you will never call my home again regarding Katrina,” she said sternly to the poor recruiter on the other side. See, the military recruiters call us ‘Army brats’ first. They know the chances we join are much higher than some kid on the street. But why she was speaking so harshly and taking the career path off my radar wasn’t so clear to me at the time.
Today, I know that my mom understood I’d never be successful in a military career. It wasn’t because of potential or determination. No, it was because of my sexuality. At the time, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was military policy. I didn’t know I was gay, but she did. She knew as a queer person, I would be kicked out if I came out. She didn’t want me to live a life where I’d have to hide. However, her dismissal of my career without the advice to help me find more options left me feeling overwhelmed and lost. There were too many options, and none of them felt like a sure thing.
Moving Beyond the ‘Breakfast-Table Effect’
With a story that starts that way - Army brat from a generation of military veterans - there was a one-in-a-million chance that I’d end up a CEO. Children who lack access to information about different careers are left without many options, feeling like they have nowhere to go - and like wherever they are is where they are going to inevitably end up. That feeling of hopelessness and “I don’t know what the hell to do” is emphasized.
Our parents’ lives directly impact our access to breaking barriers, whether that’s their knowledge or their financial situations. I had to start on a little path of my own because I couldn’t follow the path that everyone else in my family had followed. But not everyone is as lucky as me - not everyone has the opportunity to trek out on their own and would have ended up joining the military like I thought I was going to. And when you need a job? What’s familiar is usually easiest.
The research proves it. Children are more likely to pursue the jobs of their parents because of something called the ‘breakfast-table effect,’ which just means that family conversations influence their interests and knowledge of careers, especially less commonly understood careers and what they entail. Children have described this effect as “speaking the same language” (The New York Times).
That language tailors paths. How do you even discover a path you don’t know exists? If you don’t have access to information and references, access to potential career paths is limited. I was lucky enough to break through the barrier of growing up with limited career path options, but that was a matter of chance. In fact, Facebook used data from 5.6 million people and found that there are many jobs that parents have, including being a nurse, scientist, or lawyer, that increase the chances of their children inheriting the same exact career paths (Daily Mail).
When you consider other dimensions like gender, this impact multiplies. On average, working sons are 2.7 times more likely to have the same job as their working fathers. They are also 2 times more likely to have the same job as their working mothers. On top of this, working daughters are 1.8 times more likely to have the same job as their working mothers and 1.7 times more likely to have the same job as their working fathers. Parents with particular career paths offer connections to their children, allowing children who pursue the same jobs as their parents a head start - whether that’s through inheriting a family business, getting an internship at a parent’s company, or a parent putting in a good word for them within the industry (The New York Times).
The Generational Impact of Barriers to Access
The limited view of career paths and access to those roles has lifelong consequences. Often enough, we grow up knowing only the career paths of those around us. If the job your parents have has a limited network with a limited potential for pay, like the military or owning a local convenience store, you will likely grow up without meeting different kinds of people with more opportunities and higher-paying jobs. People of different backgrounds won’t be introduced to you, and you won’t have the same networking opportunities as those in different fields - such as access to corporate negotiation, different political views, and other cultures. And in turn? Higher salaries and career ladders to climb.
Even just attending college becomes complicated when your parents haven’t had higher education experience. Children who are the first in their families to attend college are often on their own, left to their own devices when it comes to applying to schools, applying for financial aid, and looking into scholarships and grants. It is just the beginning of a series of barriers that impacts people throughout their lives, making it harder for them even to take that first step toward a successful career.
And most of the time? These folks are minorities and underrepresented, underemployed candidates, whose parents haven’t been provided the same opportunities as straight, white, upper-class families. This leaves generational impacts: “Children with unemployed parents were more likely to say they didn’t know what they wanted to do for work” (The New York Times).
There are lifelong effects of these access barriers that defy generations. When people grow up without access to well-paying careers, they are less likely to pursue said well-paying careers, which can lead to fewer opportunities to climb the corporate ladder, less income, difficulty securing housing, issues gaining medical insurance and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and issues supporting themselves and their families. The list goes on. The scariest part? Statistically, their children are likely to repeat the cycle simply because they lack exposure to new career paths.
Using Technology to Break the Cycle and Even the Odds
Studies focused on the intergenerational transmission of poverty show individuals can break out of intergenerational cycles of poverty but are less likely to do so than commonly thought (NCCP). This is where the greatest opportunity lies for AI to change everything. By removing the traditional barriers present, AI can drill down human skills and focus on prioritizing matching over search. And in doing so? We can change how access impacts communities around the world today.
We need to find more ways to introduce people to career paths in order to break down this barrier that prevents people from access. This means presenting common careers to people with traditional backgrounds. Delivering tech solutions to rural communities. Building candidate advertising and inviting people to submit their skills instead of CVs that favor those with access.
By creating paths to introduce and facilitate less biased hires, we can change access to careers that can change everything and bring generational wealth to families. We can change lives - over multiple generations. I didn’t end up in the military or working as a farmer, but that only happens every once in a while. It’s not an everyday occurrence. I beat the odds, and technology can increase the number of people who beat the odds every day.
We can change the odds with AI that is considerate, specific, and deliberate.