TOPICS > Education > STEM

Computer science’s diversity gap starts early

BY Kyla Calvert  May 28, 2014 at 5:21 PM EST
Computer science educators and activists say exposing all students to computer programming basics early is key to drawing more women and underrepresented minorities into the field. (C) Project Lead The Way, Inc. 2014

Computer science educators and activists say exposing all students to computer programming basics early is key to drawing more women and underrepresented minorities into the field. Photo by Project Lead The Way, Inc.

When Vanessa Hurst graduated from college in 2008 she became part of a rare breed: women who hold bachelor’s degrees in computer science.

In the U.S. in 2001, 27.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science went to women, according to the National Science Foundation. By 2008, that number had dropped to a low of 17.7 percent. Though more recent numbers show a slight uptick to 18.2 percent in 2010, the field is still overwhelmingly male.

As a software developer, Hurst was often the only woman in the room.

“The way that affected us (women) was that we felt a little less comfortable asking questions,” she said. “Even though a hallmark of the technology industry is continual learning.”

In 2011, women made up 47 percent of the workforce, but only 27 percent of those in computer jobs, according to the Census Bureau. Black and Hispanic workers are also scarce in the industry. Blacks accounted for 11 percent of workers overall, but only 7 percent in the computer science industry. Hispanics made up 15 percent of the workforce and only 6 percent of computer jobs.

Frustrated, Hurst co-founded a nonprofit group to address the problem: Girl Develop It, which runs introduction to programming classes designed for adult women.

“It came from us having a lot of friends and colleagues who felt like tech was cool but that they had missed the boat. That if they hadn’t started by the time they were 14, they wouldn’t be able to catch up,” she said, admitting she felt the same way learning programming in college.

Girl Develop It is among several fledgling efforts that have sprung up to attract more women and minorities to the field. Efforts to close the gap include plans to offer more computer classes to younger students, improve national access to computer coding and address head-on the stigma that’s sometimes attached to computer professions.

Students see “portrayals of people who never comb their hair, never have relationships, never do anything important and young women especially are turned off by that vision,” said Chris Stephenson, former executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “Series like Silicon Valley are not going to attract young women, and they’re not going to be attractive to minority students either.”

For Hadi Partovi, addressing that fear of having “missed the boat” shared by Hurst and other women is key to closing the gender gap and increasing diversity in the industry. In 2013, he and his brother Ali started Code.org, an organization focused on making computer science classes available in all of the country’s K-12 schools.

“At the younger ages, kids learn more easily and they don’t have any preconceptions about what is for who or I’m not good at this or this isn’t meant for me,” he said.

At the University of California at Berkeley, Senior Lecturer Dan Garcia has found a way to reverse the trend – at least in his class. His course features stripped-down lectures, more time spent in labs spent working on real-world problems and an easy-to-use graphic programming language. The Beauty and Joy of Computing class now regularly draws in just as many or more female students than male students each semester.

Garcia is one of five college instructors across the country retooling introductory computer science courses with National Science Foundation support to draw in a broader range of students.

“In the old course, nobody ever came and said ‘Dan, this course changed my life,’” Garcia said. “Now, they do. They come to me, tug on the back of my shirt and say ‘I wasn’t into computer science. My friend dragged me into this class and now at the end of the class I’m a computer science major.’”

Garcia said he’s seen a smaller increase in the number of African-American and Latino students taking his course, but hopes the numbers continue to grow.

When the pilot period for Garcia’s and the other NSF-funded instructor’s classes ends, the plan is to create a new high school Advanced Placement course designed using their curriculum.

That could change the makeup of students taking the Advanced Placement computer science exam. In 2013, only 18.5 percent of AP exam-takers were female, 3.7 percent were black and 8.1 percent Hispanic.

But about half of the country’s jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fell under the category of computing in 2011, according to Census Bureau numbers.

“Imagine the role technology will play in the tools we use and things we interact with every day,” said Amy Jones, chief program officer for Project Lead the Way, an organization that provides science and engineering curriculum and teacher training for K-12 schools. “The value is in having diverse perspectives in those experiences. We need women as creators and we need people of color as creators because it’s so essential, and it’s already integrated into the fabric of society.”

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.