Coding is struggling with a bit of an image problem. That image? Straight, white, male. In 2013, women filled only 26% of all computing-related occupations—which is about the same percentage that we saw in the 1960s. For African-American and Hispanic populations, the representation in these fields is far below the national distribution. And at the intersection of race and gender, the statistics are even more bleak: 69% of women in computing occupations are white, 16% are African-American, 9% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and only 6% are Latina.
In 2016, computer programmers are no longer bully-able geeks, but meritocratic winners who wield considerable power in society. Engineers at Facebook—or more precisely, the algorithms they program—decide what news we see and what ads we get served. (If you think that ads aren’t linked to economic opportunity, think again.) Many formerly analog tasks—hailing a taxi, dimming the lights—now rely on code that only programmers can hope to fully understand. If women and minorities are left out of coding jobs now, that omission could have ramifications on the structure of our society for years to come.
It’s clear by now that social and environmental forces contribute to the differences in earning potential for women and minorities, and that these forces also hold the same people back from careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). What needs to be done to close the gap? Let’s take a look.
The U.S. public education system needs more computer science classes
Early exposure to skills is crucial for securing a job in one of the best-paid and fastest-growing industries around. Yet only 1 in 10 schools nationwide are currently teaching computer science classes. Granted, some high schools in the U.S. are exposing students to basics of programming, which serves to improve their familiarity and comfort with these subjects—but more often than not schools that are able to do so are private. To open the doors of the tech meritocracy to the underprivileged, coding needs to be taught in public schools.
There are a lot of barriers to this. Because the public education system in the U.S. depends heavily on local control, it’s impossible to design and implement sweeping changes to curricula in one fell swoop. National standards like Common Core and testing-focused federal programs like No Child Left Behind often leave little room for enrichment classes or electives. In some cases nonprofits and businesses are stepping in to fill the gap; for instance, last year Intel pledged $5 million to set up computer science pilot programs in Oakland high schools. But a charity initiative here or there isn’t likely to create broad-based change.
It also won’t be enough for schools to just offer coding classes: the coding gap will only close with specific outreach to marginalized groups. There is substantial data to suggest that a learned lack of confidence can discourage minority groups from choosing certain subjects in school. And one 2015 study found that teachers gave girls higher marks than boys on a certain math test, but only if the test is anonymized; with students’ (gendered) names revealed, they give boys the higher scores. Unless teachers work to recruit girls and minorities to coding classes, such biases will continue to keep their numbers in the tech industry low.
Nonprofits need to expand their scope
We’ve certainly been entering the Era of the Nonprofit for the past few years, and nonprofits that aim to teach coding to women and people of color abound. (A few examples: #YesWeCode. Girls Who Code. Black Girls Code.)
Lack of access to training isn’t the only issues these groups face. In the case of underprivileged youth, for instance, a major challenge is the limited access some of these students have to computers. But the challenges extend beyond the physical, especially when it comes to connecting students with jobs that utilize their training. Limitations experienced in this realm—such as the absence of a professional network or an unfriendly corporate culture—can prevent any would-be programmer from succeeding. Successful nonprofit coding programs will be those that succeed in the final stretch: job placement and support during the transition.
This kind of support needs to continue after coders become established in their careers. That same 2013 survey I quoted in the introduction found that 56% of women in computing-related occupations left those careers at their midpoint. It’s not just a lack of candidates in the pipeline that’s keeping representation low—it’s also a lack of retention. Nonprofits that encourage professional networking, like Women Who Code, can certainly help here, but in the end it will be up to tech companies themselves to enact policies to retain female talent.
Everyone needs to move on this fast
The tech industry is booming, which in theory should mean more demand for programming labor. But with barriers to intercontinental communication quickly vanishing, more and more programming and web-design jobs based in the U.S. are being outsourced to lower-paid workers in other countries. In fact, computer programming jobs are projected to decrease by 8% next year in the U.S., even as the computer technology industry is projected to grow by 12%. Whether computer programming serves to be an equalizer or perpetuator of inequality in the U.S. may depend on how fast minority groups can participate and get a “piece of the pie,” so to speak, before the opportunities there shrink.
The bad news is that it’s looking like underrepresented people groups will still have to try twice as hard for a shot at the same jobs, which is truly unfair. The good news is that people are certainly ever more aware that the coding gap is a real problem. Ultimately, the U.S. education system will adapt, nonprofits will grow, and more female and minority students will find careers in computing-related tasks. It’s the only way to keep up with the changing demand of a world where computers are not going away.
With contribution from Cailey Bromer of the Hippo Thinks research network.