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National Movement Targets Lack of Women, Minorities in Computing

In recent years, new organizations have popped up around the country with the common goal of showing women and minorities that computer science isn't just for people who look like Bill Gates.

One major stereotype about technology is that it is mostly a field for geeky white men. To some degree, the stereotype has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as statistics show that women and certain minority groups are not pursuing technology in school, and even when they do, they don’t necessarily pursue careers in technical fields. To that point, a nationwide movement has formed dedicated to engaging those who have been left behind involved in the increasingly relevant field of computer science.

Where Are the Women?

Women dominate in U.S. universities, with 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees going to women. It’s not that women aren’t technically minded either, as 52 percent of all math and science undergraduate degrees are attained by women. But in computer and information science, women represent only 18 percent of all undergraduate degrees. And the trend starts early in a woman’s educational career, as females represent 56 percent of high school Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers, but only 19 percent of AP Computer Science test-takers.

There are broader problems perpetuated by American educational institutions, like the fact that most high schools don't require any kind of computer classes, or make any distinction between computer literacy classes and computer science classes. But these issues aren’t keeping white males out of computer science, so there must be other factors at work.

Cultural perceptions about technology play a big role in keeping women and minorities out of computer science, said Joanne Cohoon, a professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in sociological issues around computing and gender. Cohoon is also the senior social science researcher at the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) and the principal investigator for the Tapestry Workshops.

Technology is viewed as a masculine endeavor and women are not appreciated for being technical, Cohoon said. These stereotypes, reinforced by pop culture, affect how people think about themselves and their own capabilties, and in turn, create educational environments where white men are welcomed and everyone else, though technically allowed to participate, is excluded. It’s hard for students to participate in an environment if they’re surrounded by people who don’t look like them and they can’t relate to, Cohoon said.

Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor at the Human-Centered Computing Division at Clemson University in South Carolina, experienced some of the things Cohoon mentioned as she earned her Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan in 2012, the first black woman to do so.

McMullen recalled being a struggling student and feeling grateful to have access to the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, an undergraduate scholarship program for minorities, which gave her a support network and much-needed guidance at the time. But not everyone was supportive, she said. Her graduate department chair once advised her to drop out and pursue a subject she might be better suited to, like education, she recalled.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Ph.D. in hand, McMullen is now trying to change the image of computer science. The mostly female and non-white division of Clemson's School of Computing is featured in a documentary Web series called Lab Daze, a marketing tool conceived by Department Chair Juan Gilbert. People should see that there are all kinds of people in computer science, she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that between 2010 and 2020, there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings nationally, and at current graduation rates, only about 30 percent of those jobs can be filled.

“When I think about careers and computer programming, I think of people like my Dad, always sitting at the laptops, looking at all these different websites, just working a lot,” said a young girl from Austin, Texas, interviewed by NCWIT for a 2012 survey.

Seth Reichelson, a computer science teacher at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla., was invited to the White House and recognized for his ability to get girls and minorities into his computer science classes. In 2012, Reichelson’s students alone constituted more than 1 percent of all students in the country who took the AP computer science exam and many of them were female.

But it wasn’t always like that, Reichelson said. Having taught physics, engineering and computer science for 17 years, Reichelson recalled years of having just a couple of girls in each of his computer science classes, and he never thought anything of it. Reichelson changed his approach after receiving an email from a program called the Tapestry Workshops, which he now tours with. The Tapestry Workshops travels the country educating teachers on how to recruit and retain female and minority students in computer science. Even today, Reichelson said, he must fight old habits that would lead him back to a mostly male classroom.

Quality Content and Role Models Inspire

“First you have to have good content,” he said. “No good content means no students at all.” The teacher also needs to create an inclusive atmosphere, he said. “So, 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,” he said. “Even as far down as what your classroom looks like.” Students need to feel they belong somewhere or they won’t want to participate, he said.

Starting early and showing girls and minorities that this is a real option for them is important, he said. That’s why programs like the Tapestry Workshops and Black Girls Code and iUrban Teen Tech exist.

Black Girls Code hosts events around the country in an attempt to revive interest in computer science among females, focusing on non-white students. “Our goal and our mission,” said founder Kimberly Bryant, “is to teach girls of color between the ages of 7 and 17 about computer programming and technology and giving them resources and skills and access to mentors that will allow them to move from a position of being only consumers of technology and becoming next generation creators and leaders in technology.”

A program called 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 accessible to them.

Launched in 2011 on the campus of Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash., iUrban Teen Tech has since been expanded to the University of Portland, and is now broadening its reach into Seattle and Los Angeles.

There are many factors to consider when it comes to keeping students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), Portland Chief Technology Officer Ben Berry said. Students first need access and exposure to what’s available; parents need to support their interest; students’ peers must accept their choice to be involved with technology; they need to feel inspired to continue participating; and they need role models who can show them the way.

The country needs more mentors for black and Latino students, Berry said. His own success in a technology-based career comes from seeing his father, the first black student to graduate in aeronautical engineering at USC, assume a position of authority in a STEM field. Seeing his father's success showed him that this was a kind of position that was possible for him, too.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.