BYP In Conversation With Janet Onyia From Accenture | BYP Network
Oct 13, 2020
The conversation about diversity, equality and inclusivity has arguably never been more centre stage than it is right now. It has unfolded in the midst of a global pandemic, where every aspect of our lives has been thrown into complete disarray. Millions of students across the UK had their very futures thrown into uncertainty as a nationwide lockdown took hold and obliterated exam season.
It’s people like Janet Onyia, Technology & Business Integration Architect at Accenture, who are seeing the ramifications of Covid-19 across her everyday work. Janet joined Accenture in Edinburgh as an Experienced Hire 18 months ago and in that time, she’s completed Platform Transformation programmes for clients in the Financial Services. Outside of Accenture she regularly speaks at events on the topics of ethnicity and gender inclusion in Tech, as well as equality in entrepreneurship opportunities and the economic benefits that brings. Through this work, she’s recognised as being one of the leading voices advocating for inclusion and equality in Tech and entrepreneurship at Accenture within Scotland. A mum of 2 and a keen entrepreneur, she also plays hockey for her physical and mental wellbeing.
“The 2020 Summer exam results confusion was frustrating,” she tells me. “It further immortalises the inequality in the education system that already negatively impacts young Black people and those of low socio-economic status.”
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, the “systemic and disproportional inequalities” endured by Black people throughout their lives’ couldn’t be more apparent. Statistics show that Black people are more likely to be negatively impacted by the Government’s decision to base final grades on their predicted ones. Only 39% of Black students achieved accurately predicted grades in comparison to their White counterparts who achieved 54% accuracy.
The findings from a report conducted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has now resurfaced, stating that Black students are more inclined to be marked down and at its core is an algorithm susceptible to bias - just like humans are. An algorithm in which a miscalculation can have detrimental effects on a well deserving student’s future.
Many students benefited from the Government’s U-turn to not make predicted grades a make or break factor for millions, with some securing places on their respective apprenticeships, universities and other roles. However, despite now basing final results on teacher grades, the other side shows that it’s already had devastating effects as higher and further education’s acceptances were consequently deferred.
Janet tells me that the mental health and wellbeing of these disadvantaged young people and their families are at the forefront of her concerns. She also explains that that these algorithms exist in many facets of everyday life. In facial recognition technology, in healthcare, the justice system, driverless vehicles and much more. She has experience in this area as an ambassador of Accenture’s Europe-wide Data & AI Hub, where she advocates for ethics in AI and raises awareness of algorithmic bias.
“At the core of this is the fact that algorithms are created by people, and fed huge amounts of data which is what they’re trained on (Machine Learning)” she says. “Therefore, if the data that the algorithm has been built upon is skewed, incomplete or discriminatory in any way, the algorithm will be trained and also continue to train itself on it, therefore the output will indeed be what we saw from the exam results situation."
These algorithms which millions were subject to had been given data that taught it some unfair factors like less affluent schools are more likely to get worse grades. It only highlights the importance of “explainability in algorithms,” because without it there isn’t a way to know what factors the machine is “viewing” as important and ones that are not. Janet believes that though it’s helpful as they shouldn’t be predictors, other factors such as race and socio-economic status are often not included in these algorithms, but the output isn’t sufficiently checked to see if there are any patterns which follow these categories. Therefore, other correlating features of the data will still imply elements such as low grades, so the algorithm still implicitly learns that it’s a factor to be considered.
Janet acknowledges that the young people at the brunt of this machine learning will find it difficult to succeed in a society that is already stacked against them. “We’re currently in a bleak economic climate as a result of a COVID-19 and Brexit,” she says. “Jobs are more competitive and so are university places."
“Unfortunately, examination grades are used by the system as one of the biggest determinants of a young person’s path, especially at that transitional point in their lives. In this situation with exam results, we’ve seen young people who are highly passionate about a certain career path and have worked hard for it, are being impacted by an algorithm that grades them by their postcode rather than their ability – especially when they were on course to achieve the required grades to pursue their dream career.”
However amidst it all, Janet urges young people to be resilient and relentless, as they begin their new journeys into the unknown. She tells me that she wants them to be open about their experiences and to learn from them. To look at the other options they may have to achieve their dreams. To focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t. To look towards their futures with a growth mindset and nothing else. With a smile, she reassures me that there is always a chance for everyone that has faced this.
“At Accenture, we are of the opinion that your performance in your A levels is not an indicator of how successful you will be as an employee,” she says. “As a result, for all of our undergraduate and graduate programmes, there are no UCAS point requirements.” Accenture has a company culture in which its employees are valued for their “differences and unique strengths.”
It’s reassuring to know that, with every aspect of young people’s lives being shrouded in uncertainty, there is hope and people who are still fighting for them and their futures.
To find out more about Accenture and the opportunities we have available please visit our website.
Accenture will be speaking at BYP’s Leadership conference on 30th October 2020.
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