Bridging the Diversity Gap in Computer Science
Before we get into the diversity gap that exists in the computer science (CS) field and why that’s a problem and how to address it, I want to set the context for why computer science itself should be of any interest to anyone.
Even though CS has been perceived as vocational, technology is pervasive in our lives and also represents a skill-set that has tremendous demand in the job market and that alone makes it foundational. Of all the science/math students in the US, only 2% take computer science, yet 60% of technical jobs are computer science related and 40% for the rest of math/science. Unfortunately with the current rate of student uptake, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million CS related jobs but only 400,000 CS graduates to fill them. This represents a gap of 1 million jobs that will be unfilled and that amounts to a $500 billion opportunity. Despite this positive demand trend for CS graduates, the number of CS majors is on the decline with less CS major students today than 10 years ago. I hope these numbers have helped establish the need for more students taking computer science to tap into this incredible financial and professional opportunity. I, and the team at Code.org spend all our time thinking about how we can help bring computer science to every student in every school for just that reason.
There are many factors that contribute to this demand/supply mismatch, one of the largest of these being the strong stereotype that exists about “who” can be good at computer science and that’s assumed to be male and white. This means 75% of our population is not represented because of this bias. The poor diversity statistics in the technology industry further reinforce the trend. This is also evident in the percentages of CS graduates that are women or ethnic minorities. US high school AP Computer Science enrollment numbers are just one indicator of this worrying lack of diversity – 15% enrollment of girls, and only 8% African American or Hispanic. Also, even though 57% of all bachelors degrees are earned by women, only 12% computer science bachelors degrees are awarded to women. Clearly, there’s a problem and it needs to be addressed!
I believe that there isn’t a silver bullet that will magically make computer science a more diverse space but rather there has to be consistent long term investment in education institutions as well as the industry to move the needle in a sustainable way. First and foremost, computer science cannot be limited to being a viral/vocational learning (because if it remains that way, only kids that are likely to invest in it are ones that already are). It has to be provided in schools so that every student has a chance to learn computer science.
Second, computer science needs to be introduced earlier rather than later in the child’s learning arc. There’s strong data that suggests that children that were exposed to computer science early are much more likely to try it later. That’s why Code.org spends a lot of time working on CS education in elementary and middle schools rather than exclusively focus on high schools. Also, it’s important to recognize that computer science has tremendous value for non-CS subjects like math, science, even language. So offering CS as a standalone subject is valuable but so is offering it as a part of existing math and science courses. This is also mirrored in the job market where over 60% of CS related jobs are actually not in the “tech” industry but in finance, manufacturing, science, research etc.
Third, computer science curriculum in K-12 and beyond must be conscious and mindful of being appealing to a diverse population. When we decided to partner with Disney to bring Elsa and Anna from Frozen into our curriculum, our biggest incentive was to attract young female students to computer science and make it fun! This is just one small example and by no means the entirety of how to make educational content more relevant to a broad population.
Finally, we must define diversity metrics, set goals for them and then measure diligently to see if this strategy is working. Ultimately a plan is only as good as it’s ability to impact the outcome in the way we want. This also means having the flexibility to respond to these measurements and changing strategy if we are no tracking well towards our goals.
Being a woman in the tech industry, I have a selfish interest in this dialogue and feel uniquely positioned to help move things in a positive direction. The approach I’ve outlined is already in the works with a lot of non-profit and for-profit organizations betting on it, a lot of educational institutions partnering and backing it up and that makes me optimistic that we will overcome the male-white stereotype and make CS a diverse, friendly space for anyone to be a part of.
About the author:
Mona Akmal is a certified geek with a long history of building stuff for real people. At Code.org, she is part of an awesome team that builds fun products to help kids learn computer science and embrace their inner geek. In her past life, she ran product management for the OneDrive (SkyDrive) experience at Microsoft, and she co-founded dreamfly.org in her spare time.
Mona Akmal will be the keynote speaker at Pearson’s STEM Ed Series, Closing the Gender Gap, held February 19-21, 2015. Located at the Fairmont San Jose & Google Campus in Silicon Valley, California, educators and industry leaders will discuss ideas and programs to help close the gap in STEM education and STEM careers with a focus on technology. More information about the event including registration can be found here: http://www.pearsonhighered.com/stem-closing-the-gender-gap.