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Bringing Women and Minorities to IT

Groups work to reverse decades of cultural barriers that keep women and minorities out of technical careers.

The Iron Sheik is a professional wrestler, now mostly retired at the age of 71, who achieved a level of fame playing the bad guy in the ring alongside personas like the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. If you’re a man, there’s a good chance you already knew that. If you’re a woman, there’s a good chance you didn’t know that and you probably didn’t want to know, either.

While the WWE claims that 35 percent of its fans are female, the largely male fan base illustrates a clear difference between the minds of men and women. The failure of educational institutions to realize and acknowledge differences like this could be part of the reason that finding a woman in a computer science class can be like finding a parking space at the mall on Saturday.

Women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the country, and 52 percent of all math and science undergraduate degrees. But in computer and information science, women represent only 18 percent of all undergraduate degrees. And the trend starts early: Females constitute 56 percent of all high school Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers, but represent only 19 percent of AP computer science test-takers.

There’s growing evidence that this gender gap is hurting the nation’s economy. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between 2010 and 2020, there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings nationally, but at current graduation rates, only 30 percent of those positions can be filled. While opinions may differ on how to lure more students into STEM fields, limiting the country’s talent pool by failing to address this lack of diversity is a poor strategy for success in a competitive global market.

Photo: In 2012, Kyla McMullen became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan. Photo by Lonnie Major

Women and minorities not pursuing computer science can largely be attributed to stereotypes around technology, said Joanne Cohoon, a University of Virginia professor who specializes in sociological issues around computing and gender. Cohoon also is the senior social science researcher at the National Center for Women and Information Technology and the principal investigator for the Tapestry Workshops, which educate teachers around the country on how to recruit and retain female and minority students in computer science.

“As a culture, we think that being masculine is related to being technical,” she said. “And we don’t think very much of women being technical. I think you find that even when women go into technical fields like engineering, they go into the disciplines that are most closely aligned with feminine stereotypes like biomedical engineering.”

There’s no evil intent on behalf of any group to exclude any other group, Cohoon said — many Americans just can’t help but to go along with the modes of thinking that have become cultural norms.

Bridging the Gap

Based in the Pacific Northwest, iUrban Teen Tech is focused on bringing tech education to black and Latino males, the two groups at the highest risk for dropping out of school. Through interactive workshops, technology summits, classes and trips to industry, students get exposure to the world of technology development. The idea, said Founder Deena Pierott, is to show students that careers in technology are available.

“iUrban Teen targets the youth who are typically missed,” Pierott said. “We leverage the thriving technology sector in the region to bridge this gap, allowing them not only a view of what a career in technology looks like, but also engaging them in the process of designing change in their communities and families. Our belief is that we have to intentionally reach the layers of youth that have been and continue to be overlooked and underutilized.”

The program was launched in 2011 on the campus of Washington State University in Vancouver, and later expanded to the University of Portland, having now reached more than 700 students. Next, iUrban Teen Tech will stretch to Seattle and Los Angeles, and it plans to add new programs such as think tanks where students and industry professionals can build ideas together.

Seth Reichelson, a computer science teacher at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla., said he once was part of the problem. “When I look back at the things I used to do to get students in my class, I’m embarrassed by how bad it was,” said Reichelson, who has been teaching physics, engineering and computer science for 17 years.

For many of those years, he never gave any thought to the fact that there were typically only three or four girls in each of his computer classes. “It was almost like I was trying to scare the girls away,” he said, recalling an incident from 2005. “Our school was the Knights, and they told us to paint a giant shield for the computer programming club. We painted the Iron Sheik, the Iranian strongman, topless, and he had Java tattoos all over his body. It was like ... AP computer science: Iron Sheik. I still think it’s funny, but not a lot of girls looked up and said, ‘I can picture myself in there.’”

These days, Reichelson’s getting everyone interested in what he’s selling. So much so, he was invited to the White House and recognized for his ability to attract girls and minorities to his computer science classes.

In 2012, Reichelson’s students alone made up more than 1 percent of all students in the country who took the AP computer science exam, and many of them were female. One secret to Reichelson’s success, he said, is putting students first. He contends that many teachers are more concerned about their own pass rates than student achievement; therefore, they lead students out of classes if they think the students may fail.
Talking to Reichelson, it’s easy to see why he’s popular with students. He comes off as passionate, engaged and open — a natural teacher. But if Reichelson inadvertently kept girls out of computer science, physics and engineering for so many years, then good teachers, average teachers and bad teachers are likely doing the same or worse.

In recent years, a movement has grown around the country. There are now many organizations dedicated to expanding the pool of computer science students beyond white and Asian males. Reichelson changed his approach after receiving an email from the Tapestry Workshops, which he now tours with. Even today, Reichelson said he must fight old habits that would lead him back to a mostly male classroom.

“First you have to have good content,” he said. “No good content means no students at all.” Teachers also need to create an inclusive atmosphere. Students need to feel they belong or they won’t want to participate. “You have to watch out for what examples you choose. You have to watch out for the language you use; you have to be gender neutral,” Reichelson said. “Even as far down as what your classroom looks like.”

Despite the hurdles, there may not be a better career right now than computer science for women seeking a four-year degree. “There are so many scholarships and job opportunities for girls, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “If you’re a girl majoring in computer science, you can pretty much write your own ticket with any company.”

Kyla McMullen agreed that it’s good to be a woman in computer science. McMullen found herself in the media spotlight when it was discovered that by earning her Ph.D. in computer science in 2012, she became the first black woman at the University of Michigan to do so. Getting a doctorate is difficult, she said, but the difficulty level is increased for women and minorities in computer science because the institution isn’t designed with them in mind.

Girls Code

Black Girls Code hosts events around the U.S., operating from offices throughout the country. “Our goal and our mission,” said Founder Kimberly Bryant, “is to teach girls of color between the ages of seven and 17 about computer programming and technology.” By providing resources, skills and access to mentors, she hopes they will become the next generation of IT leaders.

Founded in 2011, the nonprofit gained immediate support and has received money from all over, including from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and organizations like the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Two years of crowdfunding through Indiegogo has yielded about 3,000 supporters and $130,000.

“When I got to school, I was often the only student of color and maybe the only woman in my classes,” Bryant said, recalling her days as an electrical engineering major in the late 1980s. “Going through that makes the experience even more daunting than just learning the material because you don’t have that connection with someone who shares your experience.”

Black Girls Code runs events year-round on topics like robotics, game and mobile app development, and Web design. It also hosts boot camps for older students to work alongside engineers from companies like Twitter and gain valuable first-hand experience.

“We’re looking to see our program grow to reach 1 million girls by the year 2040,” Bryant said. “One of the most important things is to plant that seed of interest because [our students] don’t generally have any knowledge of computer programming or computer science before they come into our classes.”

Like many college students away from home for the first time, McMullen faced resistance on the path to achieving her goals. Lack of sleep, difficult classes and a big workload put her in the same boat as many other college students, but she had the added challenge of being in the minority in her major. She began to doubt herself, she said, but the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, an undergraduate scholarship program for minorities, gave her a support network and much-needed guidance. Her love of computer science combined with personal resolve led to her eventual graduation.

In graduate school, things got even tougher. McMullen failed her qualifying exam the first time, failed a test early on and was put on academic probation. No longer an undergrad, she didn’t have her scholarship to lean on and had to build her own support network — but the people around her weren’t always supportive. McMullen once visited the graduate department chair for help during an especially difficult time, and he suggested she give up on computer science and pursue a subject she might be better suited to, like education.

Similar incidents would happen periodically, she said. A graduate school liaison whose job it was to help students once told her, “I’ve never taught one of you before,” McMullen recalled.

That McMullen even had the opportunity to be the first anything in 2012 is a testament to the institutional design flaws in higher education. With racial and gender issues on top of the challenges inherent in achieving an advanced technical degree, it’s no wonder McMullen was alone at the top.

Now an assistant professor at the Human-Centered Computing Division at Clemson University in South Carolina, McMullen is doing her part to change the face of computing. The mostly female and non-white division at the School of Computing is featured in a documentary Web series called Lab Daze, a marketing tool conceived by Department Chair Juan Gilbert. The effort is aimed at addressing computer science’s image problem.

“We’re just trying to give people a different picture of what computer science looks like and what people who study computer science might look like,” McMullen said. It’s important for people to see other people who look like them doing things in computer science if it’s going to become part of their world, she added.

And that kind of role modeling and mentorship must start at a young age. “If nobody tells you about [these programs] then you may pick a career that you might be good at — history or English or something — but you might even be a better computer scientist,” she said.

There are many factors to consider when it comes to keeping students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, said Portland, Ore., Chief Technology Officer Ben Berry. It takes a multifaceted effort: Students need to be exposed to what’s available, feel inspired to continue participating and have role models to help show the way. In addition, parents need to support their child’s interest and students’ peers must accept their choice to be involved with technology.

“We need more mentors,” Berry said. “I truly believe I was driven to a STEM career because my father was in science and technology as the first black to graduate in aeronautical engineering at USC. Because he worked in the aerospace industry, I got to see him being effective in STEM roles of authority and accountability. Therefore, I was exposed to multiple technologies and I knew that these roles were possible. If we never see people that look like us and sound like us in these jobs, then we start to think these jobs aren’t for us.”

The good news is that progress is being made. Programs like the Tapestry Workshops are taking the right approach, Cohoon said, addressing issues of confidence, role modeling and the in-group, out-group dynamic.

Historically interest in computer science has fluctuated year by year, but the overall trend is toward growing interest, Cohoon said, although she’s still concerned about diversity and the ability to meet overall demand. “Students want to go into this, but we don’t have the capacity,” she said.

In many ways, educational institutions are still geared as if today’s job market is the same as it was in the 1950s. The educational infrastructure required to support the number of technical jobs needed simply doesn’t exist, she said.

Online courses like those offered by Kahn Academy and MITx could provide some relief, but the issue of bringing women and minorities into the fold will require constant vigilance, Cohoon said. “If we have this pervasive cultural issue that is steering women away from computing, then we have to take action in order to draw them back.”
Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.