The lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s mostly white, mostly male workforce has attracted a lot of scrutiny and criticism in recent months. But even if criticism is warranted, the problem originates elsewhere – in early education. That realization has driven several tech companies to action.
Among them is Google, whose $50 million Made with Code initiative seeks to challenge cultural stereotypes and teach girls coding at an early age. California-based startup Play-i, uses toy robots teach kids to code, and Black Girls Code, a non-profit organization, is working to bring minorities into the technology space.
Chatting with TECHtonics, Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant says she launched the non-profit organization in 2010 after she noticed a distinct absence of minorities in technology.
BRYANT: I had just left a career in corporate America and was doing a lot of – I’ll just say – a lot of networking here in the Silicone Valley area and the Bay area. And I was finding that in many of the events that I attended and many of the conferences that I attended, there weren’t there many women and there were even fewer people of color.
… Around that same time, my daughter was really expressing an interest in computer science and primarily in video gaming and gaming; and [was] really a heavy gamer. But I was looking for something, you know, more productive for her to do with her time. And I did find an opportunity for her to do a computer science summer camp down at Stanford. And it went extremely well. But one of the things that I also noticed during that particular opportunity [was] that class and the summer experience that she had was the same replica of what I was seeing in the professional world, was the same thing that was in her classes – you know, very, very few women … three or four, maybe five out of a class of about 40 boys. And she was the only student of color.
And so that was really like a light bulb moment for me in terms of really understanding that there was an issue. This was before I even looked at the numbers and the data, but just an observation.
Q. What kind of statistics are we talking about?
BRYANT: In the middle of the ‘80s – ’85 – that was the peak of women receiving degrees in computer science, where about 35 percent of women were receiving Bachelor’s degrees in computer science. Since that time the numbers have dropped drastically. So now we’re looking at anywhere between 12-18 percent of women, depending on which skill or which study you’re looking at, that are receiving a Bachelor’s degree in computer science.
… For African American women, that number is only three percent, maybe two percent. And then for Latinas, it’s less than one percent.
Q. What are the numbers for minorities in the tech workforce?
BRYANT: They average about the same. So you see about maybe 6-8 percent of women in the technology space in terms of career and less than three percent of African Americans and Latinas that are in the tech space, you know, in the career workforce.
… The number of, you know, African American women and just women of color in general is very low. So not only throughout the pipeline and getting those degrees, but even in terms of, you know, getting out into the tech space and having some of these positions in technology companies.
Q. Where does the problem start?
BRYANT: Part of the uphill battle we’re facing right now is that there’s not enough of this introduction and exposure to computer science very early in KG-12. I don’t know if we necessarily need to teach kids how to program in kindergarten, but I was saying in early elementary, there needs to be some very little exposure for most of the young people today to computer science and technology and computational thinking. And unfortunately that’s not happening for many of those students, even through high school, [and students going to college with little access or knowledge of computer science and materials.]
Q. What have you accomplished with Black Girls Code?
BRYANT: We started out in April 2011. That’s when we founded the organization. Since that time, we have reached almost 3,000 students, 3,000 girls. And we have a goal to reach a million girls by the year 2040. We have chapters in seven cities currently within the U.S., as well as one chapter in Johannesburg, South Africa, currently. So we continue to grow the organization.
Q. Do you have overseas chapters in countries other than South Africa?
BRYANT: That’s the only overseas location we have to date. We are looking at expanding in other parts outside the U.S. So we’re looking at starting chapters in other parts of Africa, as well as in Latin America and Europe.
Bryant says Black Girls Code has received an overwhelmingly positive response and numerous requests to open chapters overseas, with the help of volunteers.
Most of the group’s volunteer teachers – a little over 1,000 worldwide – are employees of companies like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and others who are pushing to set the record straight and create a new, more inclusive tech workforce.