Zulu whipped up her first website, with simple blue text, a yellow background and an embedded YouTube video teaching people how to compost, as a student with Black Girls Code, an Oakland-based non-profit educational initiative to introduce girls of color to the world of computers and technology.
It was her first time taking part in the organization’s trainings. Zulu, an 11-year-old who lives in Alameda with her parents and seven siblings, was at Black Girls Code’s San Francisco training with her younger sister Keikilani this Saturday as part of the organization’s Summer of Code series to teach black girls aged 7 to 17 how to build a website in a day. In just a year and a half, Black Girls Code has already reached hundreds of youth. On Saturday, the 55 girls in San Francisco were joined by over a hundred girls in Chicago and Atlanta taking part in identical workshops.
Zulu’s second website she made on her own, because she wanted to. It’s another iteration of her earlier effort, which includes step-by-step composting directions, in red, green and black text, with photos, video and links. There’s even a Michael Jackson video to watch. “I didn’t think it would go well. I thought it was going to be a lot more complicated, but [Black Girls Code instructors] explained it really thoroughly,” Zulu said of her first foray into coding. “It turned out to be kinda easy.”
That’s exactly the kind of confidence Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant wants girls of color to come away from the workshops with. “I want these girls to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Steve Jobs, and be the women that are creating and building positions of leadership in tech,” she said. If Zulu’s quick gains are any indication, the young organization is well on its way to meeting its goal. But increasingly, encouraging girls of color to jump into the world of technology is not just about increasing corporate diversity. It’s also a matter of equity, and an absolute economic urgency.
Aita Zulu, far right, in Black Girls Code’s San Francisco training at ThoughtWorks.
Too Pretty To Do Math
Twenty years ago, Barbie uttered those now-infamous words: “Math class is tough!” Just last year, teen retailer Forever 21 apologized to an outraged public for selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Allergic to Algebra.” It was to be just one of such offenses that year.
In that same span of time, the number of women majoring in computer science in college has actually declined, even as the numbers of women majoring in other science fields like biology and chemistry has reached near parity with their male classmates.
The decline is due in part to the stubborn cultural myth that, as Barbie says, math class is just too tough for girls. These ideas are communicated and internalized from long before birth, said Cordelia Fine, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne. “Gender is absolutely primary: it is the first thing we want to know about a newcomer to the world–‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ … and as a social division it is emphasized ceaselessly.” When people are reminded of their gender, “even subtly,” Fine said, it can influence people’s behavior and perceptions of themselves and even change their abilities.
But in the 1980s, something else happened. The birth of the personal computer was accompanied by the rise of the image of the much reviled computer nerd, the cultural icon of programmer as obsessive video-game playing, energy drink-guzzling, personal hygiene-eschewing dude. Girls think of the field and the attached image of its most visible members and run the other way, said Sapna Cheryan, a professor of psychology who researches the power of stereotypes at the University of Washington.
And yet, back in 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine hailed computer programming as an ideal line of work for women. “It’s just like planning a dinner,” Grace Hopper, the female computer science pioneer, told the women’s magazine. In 1984 women were 37 percent of those receiving computer science degrees, in no small part due to the efforts of people like Hopper. But by 2009, women were just 23 percent of those graduating with computer science degrees.
The numbers keep tumbling downward with every progressive step up the educational ladder and toward professional life. In 2009, black, Latina, and Native American women made up roughly five percent of new computer science degree graduates that year. These days, just one in ten people working in science and tech fields are women of color.
Black male and female engineers and programmers interviewed for this article described a professional existence that’s not so much rarefied as it is isolated. “At this point I’m used to it, because the further and further you go there are less and less women,” said Kamilah Taylor, a software engineer at LinkedIn. “You get used to being in an environment that’s mostly male.”
Taylor, who got her masters in computer science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she wasn’t completely sure, but was confident she was one of the only black female software engineers at the company. “And that’s not just about them. That’s the whole tech industry. There’s not a lot of us as it is.”
Keikilani Zulu, right, learns basic coding with Black Girls Code in San Francisco.
Many now consider Black Girls Code as educational initiatives in the short-term, and economic justice initiatives for communities of color in the long-term. Not only have those in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields weathered the recession better than those out of it, STEM field jobs pay much better than jobs outside of it. As it is, women working in STEM fields make 29 percent more than their non-STEM field female counterparts. What’s more, the gender pay gap in STEM fields is smaller than the pay gap between women and men in non-STEM fields.
It’s an economic equation that the country can’t afford to ignore, say experts. “These days, the middle class must be technically trained, and if black folks are going to be part of the middle class they must be technically trained,” said Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society for Black Engineers, which also organizes summer science programs targeted at black youth.
“There’s a big gap between how many computer scientists we’re training and how many we have a demand for,” said Cheryan. “In part I think the reason for the gap is because we’re not attracting enough diversity, when at least half the population is systematically not feeling like they want to be in the field.”
Taylor was volunteering for the day at Black Girls Code after helping out with prior trainings. She said she came back because she was struck by how “amazing” the girls’ website ideas were. “They could apply for funding to build a company off of their ideas,” she said. “And they don’t have any hangups about things yet.”
Black Girls Code students discuss their website ideas with volunteer Kamilah Taylor, right.
Indeed, in the Black Girls Code classroom 9 through 11-year-olds, girls listened attentively, and answered questions eagerly. With every invitation to participate, when asked to identify the logos for different web browsers or identify the image tags on a page, students shot their arms straight into the air, their bodies squirming in their chairs as they struggled to inch their hands ever skyward.
It’s that curiosity and excitement that Bryant wants to help nurture before girls reach middle and high school. Bryant hopes to host Black Girls Code trainings before the summer’s over in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and St. Louis.
“Those subliminal and outright messages that girls are not meant to do math were absolutely there throughout my educational career,” said Bryant, who’s worked for over 15 years as an electrical engineer. “I used other tools to block out that noise and keep moving forward. That’s my focus now, blocking that noise out and showing girls they can do these technical topics.”
Black Girls Code students learn to identify various tags on a webpage
Technology As the Great Equalizer?
But it’s more than just pervasive cultural stereotypes stymieing girls and kids of color. Students of color are more likely than their white peers to live in low-income neighborhoods with schools which offer fewer educational opportunities to explore the whats, whys and hows of computers and technology for themselves. In those schools, computer science offerings are more likely to focus on rudimentary skills like how to surf the Internet and how to type, whereas high schools which offer AP Computer Science are more likely to be located in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, said Jane Margolis, a UCLA researcher who looked at exactly how this issue plays out in Los Angeles schools.
“The learning opportunities around computer science are really minimal in schools with high numbers of kids of color,” she said.
Black Girls Code students learned how to code a basic website in a day at ThoughtWorks offices.
Researchers found that even in a magnet Los Angeles high school with high concentrations of students of color and an AP Computer Science course offering, it was mostly white males who were enrolled in that class.
“It’s this phenomena we call preparatory privilege,” Margolis said, whose research is detailed in her book, “Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing.” “There’s this myth that [the Internet] is equally accessible to anyone, and not just the Internet but computers.” Margolis said that myth of equal access feeds a related fiction that those who end up in computer science are those who grew up with an “innate interest” in programming.
“But what we know is that kids who came from homes that had more resources, from parental knowledge, access to summer camps, the robotics kits, and the multiple computers at home, were doing this from a very young age. And they’d go to school and teachers would assume they had an innate interest, but in fact they had this preparatory privilege.”
Girls and youth of color are certainly using the internet, Margolis points out, “but they’re using it for communication, and that does not translate over to who is learning the computational thinking so they can create with technology.” It’s one thing to know how to drive a car, and quite another to know what you’re looking at when you pop open the hood of your car.
Aita Zulu, for her part, seemed as yet perfectly unencumbered by the prevailing stereotypes of who is and who isn’t fit to be a programmer. When asked if she had a particular image of what kind of person makes websites for a living, she said quickly, “No.”
“I think anybody can make a website. Because my little sister made a website, and she’s 7.”
Black Girls Code students sketch their ideal websites’ wireframes.