Crack the Code: Closing the Diversity Gap by Teaching Girls & Students of Color Computer Science

If you’re looking for a career with good job security and a great salary, you need look no further than computer science. We live in an app-based world, after all, where there’s an exponentially growing need for software that meets the needs of our modern-day life. Since 1990, jobs in computer science have grown by 338 percent according to a recent Pew Research Center report, making them the fastest-growing occupations in the United States. These are high-paying jobs too, with a current median salary of more than $82,000 (which is almost double the national median income), according to the US Labor Department.

However, while the field of computer science is brimming with opportunity, women and minorities fill a disproportionately small number of these positions. According to the Pew report, only 7 percent of computer jobs are filled by African Americans and 7 percent by Hispanic workers, while these populations comprise 12 percent and 17 percent of the US labor force, respectively. The report found that while women in the states have come close to closing the overall labor force gap (now filling 47 percent of jobs), their percentage in computer-related jobs has actually dropped from 32 to 25 percent in the past three decades. The study observes an interesting correlation: since personal computers came out and the public perception set in that they’re primarily the domain of white male gamers, the percentage of women in computer fields has steadily dropped. 

Big tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have been in the national spotlight in recent years for their unequal employment of women and minorities, and many of them have launched programs to increase diversity in their workforces in response. Even while the public criticizes these programs for not doing enough (Google employs women in just 20 percent of its tech positions and Apple in just 23 percent), there has simultaneously been a backlash, culminating in a leaked internal memo written by ex-Google engineer James Damore last July claiming that diversity programs at Google resulted in reverse discrimination and that women were inherently less biologically suited to tech jobs.

Amid the din of public debate, the nonprofit Code.org has been addressing the diversity gap where it begins—at school. Twin brothers Hadi and Ali Partovi launched Code.org in 2013 after immigrating from Iran. Formerly a developer for Microsoft before becoming CEO of Code.org, Hadi said he experienced first-hand how computer science could change the trajectory of a person's life. Now he spends his time trying to bring computer science courses to every public school. Code.org has developed curriculums, online courses, and outreach programs that focus on including girls and students of color from kindergarten through high school. Their success has been outstanding: they’ve reached 500 million students with their Hour of Code events, they’ve prepped 72,000 new computer science teachers, and helped 40 states change policies to support bringing computer science into classrooms. In a conversation with iPhone Life, Hadi Partovi responds to the diversity backlash and makes the case for why computer science needs women and minorities more than ever.

Master your iPhone in one minute a day:

Sign up to iPhone Life's Tip of the Day Newsletter and we'll send you a tip each day to save time and get the most out of your iPhone or iPad.

Encouraging girls and underrepresented minorities to learn computer science is a central part of your mission. Why is that important?
This is important not only because computer science leads to the best paying careers, but because in the 21st century, a basic high school background in computer science will be increasingly foundational to every career. Yet girls and students of color are still systematically left behind in this critical field. We’re addressing the problem by making sure every school teaches computer science and by providing a curriculum and teacher prep program that ensures the class is offered in a way that addresses equity and diversity at the core.

What are some of the causes you see as contributing to the gender gap and underrepresentation of people of color in computer programming?
Our focus is on the diversity gap in K–12 education. There are three factors that contribute to the problem in our school systems:
 
1) Equal Access: Most schools don’t even offer computer science courses. This is particularly true in underprivileged urban and rural schools. If the course isn’t even offered, the students never get the opportunity to study it. Consider this: black students are more interested in studying computer science, but they are less likely to attend a school that offers it. Computer science is the most-valued subject in all education, and we believe students should have equal access to study it. 
 
2) Biases and Stereotypes: Where computer science is offered, it’s most often an elective. And with no concerted efforts to recruit diversity, preconceived stereotypes are perpetuated through self-selection, or even through school efforts that reflect the unconscious biases of society. With few to no role models, girls and underrepresented minorities make the assumption that computer science is not for them.
 
3) Math-Focused Curriculum: Traditionally computer science has been taught as a math course, and that only attracts one type of student. By broadening the focus to include creativity, app-making, and social impact, we also broaden the participation by students who previously didn’t consider this an interesting course.
 

 

Students complete coding exercises using Code.org’s curriculums. Less than half of America’s schools offer computer science courses, but Code.org’s CEO Hadi Partovi is bent on changing that. “We’re addressing the problem by making sure every school teaches computer science.” Image source: Code.org

How are you working to close the diversity gap?
Code.org works to get computer science taught in K–12 schools. When we began our work, only about 10 percent of schools offered computer science classes, and now it’s close to 50 percent. Code.org creates the world’s most popular computer science curriculum for K–12 schools, and we enlist schools and prepare teachers to teach our courses, with a specific focus on equity and diversity. To address stereotypes and biases, Code.org organizes widespread marketing and awareness campaigns, such as the global Hour of Code during Computer Science Education Week that encourage diverse participation and feature diverse role models. Our professional learning programs feature sessions that help educators understand the importance of diversity and address ways to avoid unintentional biases in interacting and recruiting students. The results speak for themselves: 25 percent of all students in the United States now have accounts on the Code.org platform. Close to 12 million of them are girls. Our students are almost half female, almost half underrepresented minorities. Our diversity numbers and scale are unprecedented because of the incredible work of almost a million teachers who offer our courses as part of the K–12 school system.

In James Damore’s memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore makes the argument that women are less inherently interested or even capable in tech. What is your response to this?
Debating this, or even asking this question, is offensive to women. A 2016 study from the University of Toronto shows that genes make no difference in the ability to learn computer science. There is no evidence that biological factors hold women back from learning to code. UCLA research shows that the way computer science is taught in schools disadvantages women. The problems we witness over and over again are accessibility and social stereotyping. Code.org’s own research shows that just a single Hour of Code activity can boost girls’ attitude and confidence toward coding, by simply trying our courses, which are designed to break traditional stereotypes. 
 
Common sense would suggest that having programmers from different backgrounds would lead to a diversity of ideas. Do you have any examples from your organization that support this notion?
Code.org’s own team is mostly female, our leadership team is gender balanced, and even our tech team boasts better gender diversity than the industry average. We believe this has played a large role in the diversity results our courses show in America’s classrooms.  We also pilot our courses and our ideas with a nationwide network of about 400 teaching experts that also bring a diversity of opinions. I’ve seen tech companies make embarrassing product design decisions because the design team didn’t have diversity in mind, and we’ve never had that problem at Code.org.
 

Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi (pictured above) and his brother Ali launched their education nonprofit in 2013. After immigrating from Iran and becoming a developer for Microsoft before founding Code.org, Hadi has experienced first-hand how computer science can change the trajectory of a person’s life. Now he spends his time trying to bring computer science courses to every K–12 school. Image source: Code.org

In a Reddit thread last August, James Damore criticized organizations including Girls Who Code and Code.org for encouraging a “women are victims” narrative. He also accused you of making coding look more “people oriented than it really is” in order to attract more women. What is your response to these criticisms? 
Code.org doesn’t try to increase diversity in computer science by faking what it’s about, or by dumbing it down, or by coloring it pink, so to speak. We achieve diversity by broadening access, by teaching computer science as early as kindergarten before stereotypes kick in, and by expanding it from being a math course to include app-making and creativity. Our students pass the high school A.P. computer science exam in larger numbers than any other group, and with strong diversity. Our results speak for themselves. 

Do you believe it’s possible that the gender gap is not evidence of discrimination or unequal opportunity? Why or why not?
It could be wrong to assume that unequal outcomes are only a result of unequal opportunity. But when the majority of schools don’t even offer the opportunity to study computer science, and this access is particularly limited in underprivileged urban and rural neighborhoods, the data easily shows that inequality of opportunity is the problem.

How can we create tech workplaces that are more welcoming to all employees?
At Code.org, we strive to create a workplace that makes employees feel included regardless of gender, race, age, or politics. This isn’t just about policies like paid family leave or unconscious bias training for employees, but it’s also about considering inclusivity as a core goal of the organization that employees genuinely take to heart.

What hiring practices do you use to promote diversity? Considering there are fewer women and minorities entering the computer science workforce, do you find balancing your diversity efforts with a more merit-based approach to be a conflict of interest?
Diversity is a core value at Code.org, and we strive for a diverse workforce to the extent that we can. We don’t consider it a matter of balancing diversity with a more merit-based approach—that implies that we compromise one for the other. It’s a matter of making the best effort to staff a team that is diverse and has merit. The most important tactics we use are to proactively recruit diverse candidates and to screen resumes without knowing the race or gender of applicants to prevent unconscious bias. As one example, when we were hiring software engineers from university, we hid their names when screening the resumes, and afterwards when we looked at the names we picked, our best candidates were women. 

Top image credit: Alless / Shutterstock.com

Master your iPhone in one minute a day: Sign up here to get our FREE Tip of the Day delivered right to your inbox.

Donna Cleveland is the editor in chief of iPhone Life magazine. After a stint as a newspaper reporter, she became web editor at iPhone Life, where she continues to pair her penchant for storytelling with her love of Apple products. Donna holds a masters degree from the University of Iowa School of Journalism & Mass Communication. She also hosts a feminist podcast, Women and Radio.