Last week, our education reporter Julianne Hing brought us her dispatch from Black Girls Code, a Bay Area workshop that aims itself directly at fixing the race and gender gap in the tech sector, one classroom at a time. In addition to talking to these (very!) young women as they coded the first webpages of their future online empires, Julianne also talked to women of color about their experiences as professionals in tech fields and spoke to sociologists about the multiple factors, both cultural and structural, that keep the ratio from changing. Black Girls Code doesn’t bill itself as a fix-all solution for a massive and deep-rooted problem, but as Julianne writes, every line of code helps:
In 1984, women were 37 percent of those receiving computer science degrees, in no small part due to the efforts of people like Hopper. But by 2009, women were just 23 percent of those graduating with computer science degrees.
The numbers keep tumbling downward with every progressive step up the educational ladder and toward professional life. In 2009, black, Latina, and Native American women made up roughly five percent of new computer science degree graduates that year. These days, just one in ten people working in science and tech fields are women of color.
In the Colorlines.com community this week, we discussed what causes that gap—and the problems with our existing (white male) tech role models. Here’s what you had to say.
Great article. The fact that these girls are surrounded by other girls who look like them is HUGE. Too often the affinity groups related to tech careers are marketed heavily to boys — comic books, science fiction, role playing games, Legos — are all affinity groups for people interested in math and science, yet most of the products associated with these groups are marketed primarily to boys.
Cam Newton drops some history:
Mary Dixon Kies In 1809, she received a patent for inventing improvements for Weaving Straw with Silk or Thread 1041x. Her technique greatly reduced the cost of making straw bonnets - most women worked in the fields and wore bonnets. This method became the standard process for more than 10 years. Unfortunately, the original patent file was destroyed (along with many others) in a fire at the United States Patent Office in 1836. In 2006, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her method of Weaving Straw with Silk or Thread. She became the first woman and African-American to apply for and receive a patent for an invention in the United States of America.
Thomas L. Jennings In 1821, he received a patent for inventing improvements to Dry Scouring for Clothes 3306x aka “Dry Cleaning”. His process would dry clothes on a rack with heat from a stove. This method was unique because previous driers, known as ventilators, were used over open flames and caused fires. This method would become the standard process for more than 70 years. Unfortunately, the original patent file was destroyed (along with many others) in a fire at the United States Patent Office in 1836. He became the first African-American man to receive a patent for an invention in the United States of America.
When are the girls going to invent the next product for us to use?
Hannah Howard raises a great point:
I love this project and thank you for such a wonderful article. As a white woman in technology, I have butted heads all my life with the brogrammer straight white guys of the world. Although I certainly haven’t been the target of racism too, I have watched it play out on others in nine million ways. I deeply appreciate the folks who’ve chosen to take this on, and if they are reading, I’d be happy to support in any way.
I am curious though why Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and by proxy Apple and Facebook, are the ideals that we want these women to become. Both men are, by admission of even their biggest fans, very selfish, aggressive personalities who’ve been jerks to a multitude of people on their way to the top. And also, is achieving success as a captain of capitalist industry the end goal of leadership in tech? Apple is by all accounts deeply exploitative of their vast labor force of extremely low-paid workers who make their products, who are almost universally people of color. Can we really say Steve Jobs, who chose his whole life to mostly ignore the labor issues in China despite the fact that his company was making truly astronomical profits, is the icon we want these young girls to strive toward? Why not imagine black girls as the next Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux) or perhaps even Julian Assange (WikiLeaks) — people who’ve actually attempted to use technology to create a better and more open world?
Anyway, I deeply value this work and the project, and as a white female programmer, I would love to support it in anyway I can! (including financially :)
Point well made, Hannah, as far as icons to emulate are concerned. But the comparison is more about recognizability than anything else, I think. I hear people all the time saying “I want to be the next Steve Jobs”, and they’re referring to it in a broad sense, sans all the nasty little details. No one besides computer science students and those of the tech population really knows who Linus Torvalds is (although I do). That’s just how it is, good, bad or otherwise.
However, as a female working to obtain my own Computer Science degree, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and delight knowing that this program exists. Seeing these girls discover talents that will really take them places and broaden their horizons is fantastic. Here’s hoping that the interest lingers well into their later years and they all go on to get their degrees and careers in this sector. It’s all good from where I’m sitting. Great article!
And Leisa Moseley:
Wow Hannah, you bring up some great points! And thank you for introducing me to these two other gentlemen as I had never heard of them before.
As part of the team that is bringing the “Build a Webpage In a Day” workshop here to Las Vegas and a mother of three daughters I too value this work and what it can do for the girls of this world. I’m sad that we don’t have many women to reference when speaking of ‘giants’ in the world of tech for our girls to aspire to be like. I’m hoping that with programs like this one that that will change very soon. I hope to have more Hannah Howards for our girls to model after.