Technology’s Gender and Race Gaps Start With High School Opportunities

The key to diversifying the technology field appears to be to start tech education earlier with a push to turn women and minorities on to tech when they’re still teenagers, or even younger, rather than focus on getting them hired at tech startups or encouraging them to major in computer science in college.

“It’s already too late,” the founder of the tech entrepreneur boot camp Y Combinator, Paul Graham, said last month in a controversial interview. “What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that.”

The “start early” strategy is yet to start working at the moment: In high school, students undertaking advanced computer science work remain overpoweringly white and male. Only a small percentage of the high schoolers taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam are women, according to data from the College Board compiled by Georgia Tech’s Barbara Ericson. An even lower percentage of the test-takers are made up of Black and Latino students. In 2013, 18% of the students who took the exam were women, as shown by Ericson’s analysis of the data. 4% were African-American while 8% were Hispanic. In contrast, African-Americans make up 14% of the school-age population in the U.S., while Latinos make up 22%.

As reported by Eleanor Barkhorn of The Atlantic, not a single member of one of these groups took the test last year in some states. In Mississippi or Montana, no women took it. No Hispanic students took the exam in 7 states: Mississippi, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho and Alaska. Additionally, no black student took the test in 10 states: Maine, Idaho, Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Utah, Mississippi and Montana.

A slightly higher-than-average percentage of the test-takers were women, comprising of 22%, in California, home of Silicon Valley. However, the percentage of African-American students taking the exam was just 1.5%.

“We were not surprised by Barbara Ericson’s findings because unfortunately, computing courses have historically been dominated by white, male students,” a spokeswoman for the College Board, Deborah Davis, wrote in an email.

Nonetheless, Erickson is working to fix the gender and race gap in high-school computer science instead of just highlighting it. To increase the number and quality of computer science teachers, and to boost the diversity of computer science students, she develops programs as the Director of Outreach for Georgia Tech’s Institute for Computing Education. Just recently, she and colleagues completed a six-year grant of trying new strategies in Georgia and Massachusetts. Additionally, taking what they learned to California, South Carolina, Indiana, Alabama, and Puerto Rico, they are about to start a new project allowing classes to count towards state graduation requirements in either math or science as a way to increase the number of high school computer science students.