Experts: Diversity in Silicon Valley Starts with Computer Science Access

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Last August, when three Congressional Black Caucus members paid a visit to some of Silicon Valley’s largest tech employers to investigate the lack of diversity in computer science-trained professionals, the media listened.  The fact that only 2 percent of Google’s workers in 2014 were African American, and 1 percent or less of the leadership in the tech industry’s most powerful companies were women, made headline news.

For weeks, many of us were riveted about the question of how and when Silicon Valley’s tech industry would take the challenge and transform its diversity numbers to reflect the census at large. The employment numbers coming out of companies like Twitter, Apple, Facebook and Google, said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), “showed a shameful lack of diversity” and had to change.

But what the news didn’t highlight at the time was the bigger picture: According to a Gallup poll released in 2014, 90 percent of elementary and high schools throughout the U.S. didn’t teach computer science (CS), and while parents overwhelmingly supported tech education for their kids, only 1 in 4 schools surveyed offered computer programming.

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Moreover, many states are still way behind in ensuring that CS education is an accepted criteria for high school graduation. In 2013, only nine states allowed CS to count toward science or math credits. Today, that number is up to 27 states plus Washington, D.C. The 41 percent of states that don’t give science and math credits for CS eduction include tech-wannabes like Colorado and Nevada. And in California, while CS can count toward graduation requirements, it’s still an elective.

Some tech companies have been trying to change these statistics. Google offers the Rise Award to enterprising students under the age of 18. It also offers the Bay Area Impact Challenge Grant to nonprofits whose programs show promise in social change. In some cases these funds have the opportunity to trickle down to CS engineers-to-be.

But it’s fair to say that much of the transformation in the technical education frontier these days is coming from enterprising small organizations and for-profit coding companies that see a dire need to redesign Silicon Valley’s employment culture

Reshma SaujaniReshma Saujani‘s decision to launch Girls Who Code didn’t start in Silicon Valley, but rather in New York. She realized in 2010 that, even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there will be more than 1 million computing jobs on the market by 2020, “women educated in the U.S. are currently on pace to hold just 3 percent of them. [There’s] just no way our country can be competitive in the 21st century without diversifying the tech sector,” Saujani told 3p. Girls Who Code offers summer immersion classes and more comprehensive training to middle-school an high-school students.

“We provide girls-only classes, which makes our students comfortable and builds a community,” Saujani said. “We also recently unveiled our Alumni Network, which will be a great resource for connecting [Girls Who Code] graduates to career opportunities in the field.”

Moreover, she notes, even though statistics show that girls who try out CS in high school are 10 times more likely to choose the topic as their university major, girls aren’t encouraged sufficiently at home and in school to follow their dreams. “Our society simply has not provided enough female role models in this field – kids today have just been socialized, especially through movies and TV, to believe that coding is a male activity.”

“You cannot be what you cannot see.”

To jumpstart that exposure at the youngest age possible, the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula sponsors summer classes for Bay Area youth in elementary, middle and high school. This summer, its Google CS First program was launched at six BGCP sites with the help of Americorps volunteers.

“Our elementary-school students take basic game design classes, our middle-school students are learning robotics programing, and our high-school students take video editing electives,” said David Cruz, a development associate for BGCP. “STEM (science technology engineering and math) is at the heart of Silicon Valley and key to successful careers in our area; we want our youth to be able to grasp STEM-related career opportunities.”

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Ensuring that STEM training is accessible to low-income students is crucial, Cruz continued.

“The more our education system incorporates STEM and tech education to disadvantaged students, the more balanced the tech career playing-field will become.”

Like Saujani, he commends tech companies that are willing to step outside the bounds of conventional recruiting practices and create new avenues for aspiring coders.

“A successful model is for companies to take the extra step and partner with youth organizations to develop and inspire the next generation,” Cruz told 3p. “Low-income youth need scholarships and internship opportunities” in order to succeed.

Approximately 20 percent of Oakland, California’s population reported being below the poverty level in 2009-2013. With almost a third of the city’s population under the age of 18 in 2010, East Bay companies like Pandora, Uber and Kaiser Permanente have a growing employment resource at their fingertips, led by educational organizations and companies like Hack the Hood, Telegraph Academy and YesWeCode, all of which offer coding courses in and around the Bay Area.

But as Code.org points out, the tech boom faces another growing challenge: Many of today’s jobs require a comprehensive computer science engineering education, and oftentimes an education that goes beyond coding.

Sixty-seven percent of STEM jobs require knowledge in computing. And only 8 percent of STEM graduates major in computer science. Furthermore, as Saujani pointed out, providing the incentive for students to choose CS as a college major is key: According to ExploringCS.org, the number of students that take CS advanced placement exams for qualification in college has actually declined in recent years, and significantly fewer women take the AP test compared to men; the same is true with African Americans and Latinos when compared to white students.

So, recognizing the importance and incentive of CS education, Code.org points out, is the first step to ensuring there will be enough trained applicants to fill those 1 million jobs in 2020: “Every 21st-century child should have the ability to learn about algorithms, how to make an app, or how the Internet works … just like they learn about photosynthesis, the digestive system or electricity.”

It’s a vision that today’s coding education networks like Girls Who Code and the BGCP’s Google Code First program see as an educational must for Bay Area’s youth.

Images: 1) & 3) Girls Who Code; 2) Woodleywonderworks; 4) Steve Jurveston; 5) Mike Strasser/West Point

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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