Many professions that were once the exclusive domain of men are no longer so. The percentage of women enrolled in law, medicine and physical sciences have been trending toward parity ever since the 1970s.
Computer science, however, is a different story. According to data compiled by Quartz, the percentage of females enrolled in the discipline has actually declined, from nearly 40 percent in the 1980s to under 20 percent today. Exposure may be one factor: A Google-sponsored Gallup report (PDF) that found that female students are less aware of online and local opportunities to learn computer science.
Gender is just one part of the diversity problem confronting many technology companies today. As diversity reports from companies like Alphabet, Apple and Facebook reveal, the employee headcounts—especially in senior and executive positions—are overwhelmingly male and white.
These companies have committed money, mentors and other resources to provide educational opportunities for underserved communities. One such effort is Black Girls Code, started in 2011 by Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer by training who has worked in biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Her founding story is personal: Like many children, her daughter, Kai, liked playing video games. So Bryant signed her up for a game development camp at Stanford in 2010, only to learn that Kai was one of the few girls—and the only student of color—in the group.
Black Girls Code now reaches 7,000 students across 11 chapters in the U.S., and one in Johannesburg, South Africa. At Quartz’s The Next Billion conference in San Francisco earlier this month, we caught up with Bryant to learn more about the group’s progress, challenges, and her thoughts on why diversity is much broader than giving more women and people of color opportunities to learn.
EdSurge: How have conversations around education, diversity and computer science evolved since you started Black Girls Code?
Bryant: When we started, it was the elephant in the room. No one really wanted to talk about issues of gender or the lack people of color in the industry. Now that’s shifted, and there’re lots of conversations about diversity in tech. I don’t think yet that—and maybe it’s to be expected—that anyone has all the answers on how to fix it, but we’re certainly talking about it. And I’m glad I’m not the only one talking about the issue.
There’s still more comfort in talking about diversity from the gender perspective, in a very binary, male-versus-female way, and what those numbers look like. I think there’s still some hesitation in looking at diversity more broadly, and I don’t mean even just from a racial lens. But there are now issues in the computer science industry around sexual orientation and how people identify. And there’s even more chatter about age diversity within the tech industry.
How has Black Girls Code evolved?
An element that we didn’t necessarily build into the curriculum at the beginning is the leadership aspect. Even my daughter, who wanted to be a game tester because she wanted to play them first, has shifted in terms of her ambition. Now she’s like, “I don’t want to be the one just doing the coding. I want to build my own game like World of Warcraft. And I want to run a video game company.”
Our students definitely want to be involved in technology, and they also have high leadership potential. We weren’t thinking about issues around developing self-confidence, leadership and entrepreneurship skills when we started. But we’ve embedded these into the program. It’s been incredible to see how our students’ aspirations have changed due to participating in Black Girls Code. We’re not just training coders, but leaders.
What are your thoughts on efforts to make computer science education part of the curriculum in school?
Many students are digital natives, and we should take advantage of that skill set as a vehicle for teaching them how to build the technology, not just consume it.
I absolutely think that technology should be taught in K-12. (Although, maybe not in kindergarten, because I feel that our students are attached to their devices a lot more than they perhaps should be, and they need some time to disconnect.)
Once students get to high school, it should be a graduation requirement in some form or fashion, because it’s a necessary skill, no matter what they go into. Even if they’re not going into computer science as an occupation, there’s no field that I can really think of that would not use technology.
A big selling point about coding is that it’s a skill that leads to high-paying jobs in the tech industry.
I think that’s one path, but I don’t think it’s the only reason to teach kids computer science. If we just teach someone a few lines of Java, I think we miss so much of the beauty of computer science. I think we miss that computer science has this strong focus on computational skills. I think we miss the beauty that it involves design-thinking and problem-solving skills, especially when you go out and build things.
Those are skills that we see, especially within our program, that the girls can use in other areas. And not just in terms of learning how to code; they can apply these skills in their traditional math and science courses, American government classes.
We’re going to test whether their participation in Black Girls Code and learning how to code increases their math competency skills. If there is a direct correlation and we can prove that, then I think that supports the argument that coding really helps kids in other areas of school, in other areas of life. And it makes computer science a beneficial skill for all students to learn, regardless of whether they want to be a software engineer or not.
How do you measure your progress towards your mission at Black Girls Code?
I want to see how many girls of color we can get through that AP Computer Science exam, because it’s an early indicator that a student may go into college and major in computer science.
Then I want to track how many of our girls are enrolling in a two or four-year institution majoring in a STEM field. (It doesn’t have to be computer science, but that would be nice.) I want to see how many choose a STEM major and graduate with that degree. Those are my key measuring blocks.
What still frustrates you?
For all the work that I can provide in an after-school program, we still have these gaps in the communities that we serve. Students may come to a Black Girls Code workshop and become inspired and enthusiastic about the new skills they’ve learned. But many of them may go home or go to a school where there’s no broadband access.
This gap in technology access still frustrates me. You don’t learn by reading a book. You learn by the practice. If students can’t do that at home or in school, because either they don’t have a laptop or they don’t have access to broadband, that’s a big barrier for them.
Where do you see Black Girls Code as an organization five years later?
We have this goal to train a million girls of color to code by 2040. In five years, I really would like to see Black Girls Code develop a very scalable model across the U.S. Right now we do a lot in curriculum development, program structure and getting funding and support for our chapters. We put the whole framework in place, and then volunteers come and run workshops. Our goal is to take this model, make it more flexible, and expand quicker.
We don’t necessarily know yet what that’s going to look like, because we are very hands-on. That’s our goal because we have a huge demand. Even though the youth coding space has grown, there are still not many programs that focus specifically on working with girls of color, especially in rural and suburban areas. And that’s unfortunate. It’s another reason why I think computer science needs to be taught in schools.