Why Building a Diverse Workforce Requires Computer Science Mandates in...

Diversity and Equity

Why Building a Diverse Workforce Requires Computer Science Mandates in Schools

By Sabina Bharwani     Jan 27, 2017

Why Building a Diverse Workforce Requires Computer Science Mandates in Schools

In the Silicon Valley, they call it the “3 percent problem.” African-Americans and Latino/Hispanics make up a tiny fraction of the overwhelmingly white, male-dominated workforce of major technology companies. No leader of the top 10 U.S.-based technology companies is African-American or Latino/Hispanic, and only one is a woman—Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM.

The influence of technology in our daily lives is ubiquitous and dictated by a privileged and powerful few. Shifts in technology directly impact our socioeconomic structures—and how individuals contribute to society and make a living. According to the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF)’s The Future of Jobsreport, the “fourth industrial revolution,” described as the confluence of emerging technology breakthroughs (such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, and 3D printing) are utterly transforming everything we experience and understand.

The WEF projects that this revolution will displace five million jobs across 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020. That’s net—a grossseven million jobs will be displaced, only two million new jobs will be created, and the lowest socioeconomic strata will be most negatively impacted. Labor-centric and administrative roles will disappear because of redundancy, automation or disintermediation. The two million new jobs will grow in specialized “job families,” including computer science, mathematics, engineering, and design. Unlike the original industrial revolution, which spanned many decades, the digital revolution is happening much faster.

Knowledge is the new currency, and it’s out of reach for many.

The Startling Stats

Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of U.S. Internet users who are African-American or Latino/Hispanic nearly doubled, from 11 percent to 21 percent (29 percent of U.S. population in 2010 was African-American or Latino/Hispanic). Despite this, an abundance of statistics point to the paucity of women and people of color in technology fields. In 2014, Google’s tech workforce was made up of only 17 percent women, two percent Latino/Hispanics, and one percent African-Americans.

In 2013, among B.A. recipients in computer science fields, only four percent were African-American and five percent were Latino. In 2015, fewer than 10 girls of any race took the AP Computer Science exam in ten states, and not a single African-American student took the exam in nine states, including Mississippi, where 50 percent of high school graduates are African-American. Even among African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans who have STEM degrees, only 30 percent have STEM-related careers.

We also see women drop out of the technology industry at a much higher rate than men: after 10 years, 41 percent of women leave technology careers, compared to 17 percent of men. These women are not dropping out of the workforce; they are switching to non-STEM careers.

This staggering lack of diversity in the technology industry is driven by two challenges:

  1. Poor access to high-impact knowledge and skills for all students, particularly underrepresented students
  2. Deeply-rooted social constructs that systematically prevent underrepresented groups from technology careers

What’s Missing (or Overlooked) in Schools and States

Ninety percent of Title I schools—those receiving federal funding for a high percentage of low-income students--do not offer computer science (CS) courses, and those that do are more likely to cover keyboarding and Microsoft applications than true software engineering, such as mobile app and web development. Research shows that 98 percent of all CS majors report exposure to the field prior to college, and when students are exposed early on, interest in the field increases dramatically.

There is little incentive for schools and districts to include technology courses. There are few high school state requirements, no prerequisite mandates to enter college, and basic course materials are expensive to purchase and maintain. Compared to white and Asian students, African-American and Latino learners have far less access to CS classes or after-school programs. White and Asian learners, for instance, are between 1.3 and 2 times more likely to attend school with a robotics club.

There’s also no coherent set of curricula and pedagogical resources to inform instruction as for other subjects such as literacy or mathematics; some refer to CS education as the “wild west.” The field evolves so quickly that it’s difficult even for computer scientists to define its contents and delimit boundaries. This leads to vastly different experiences for students nationwide and causes engineering courses to be ephemeral, exiting schools if funding is reduced or if qualified teachers leave the school.

Few incentives currently drive teachers to commit to teaching software engineering, as schools and districts generally don’t prioritize this coursework. Technology professionals also have many career options other than teaching. Those interested in teaching will see more resources and support in other core subject areas that require standardized testing or at more affluent schools.

An often overlooked barrier is belief systems: teachers' unconscious biases about their students, dominant-group students’ assumptions about their peers, employers’ beliefs about women and people of color, andstudents’ beliefs about themselves can discourage girls and underrepresented minorities from pursuing careers in STEM. African-Americans and Latinos are also less likely to know an adult who works in the technology industry, making it difficult to envision oneself in technology.

According to more than 20 years of research and field studies, we know students' true intellectual and creative capabilities are masked in situations of "stereotype threat" -- awareness of negative stereotypes associated with their "group" (male/female, majority/minority race, etc.). This inhibits students' performance on complex or creative tasks, interest, confidence, and feelings of belonging.

What Now?

It’s clear the scope of the problem is broad. But we have many ways to improve, including federal and state policies that enable schools and districts to prioritize technology coursework so that all students, particularly those in Title I schools, receive quality CS education. These policies should be developed with careful consideration of other student learning requirements around core subjects, with attention to change management issues.

In the short and medium term, schools and STEM advocate organizations should develop strategies to help existing teachers become excellent CS teachers, including professional development around the role of unconscious teacher bias. In the long term, one can expect that as these courses are prioritized and accompanied by robust standards, curricula, and teacher professional development, CS teaching will emerge as a viable path. This will empower underrepresented students and families to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.

Sabina Bharwani is the Managing Director of Innovation Strategy at Teach For America and the Founder of Hello World Tech Studio, a computer science/ engineering enrichment initiative that supports K-12 students.

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