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Why Diversity in Tech Matters

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Kesha Williams
Award-Winning Software Engineering Manager, TED Speaker & International Keynote, Alexa Champion, Java Author & Instructor
In my 23-year career as a software developer, I've noticed an imbalance of diversity in the world of technology - especially when it comes to hiring women in tech. Here's a look at ways I try to make a difference in my community and the industry as a whole.

Computers have always been a part of my life.


I know, most people who work in tech say that and it is not always the case. For me, it’s true! When I was young, my dad purchased a personal computer and put it in my playroom. I spent a large part of my youth with a Barbie in one hand and a computer manual in the other.  In high school, I began coding, but at that time I did not realize it was called coding, so I called it “playing with a computer”. As a junior in high school, I went away to summer camp for a science training enrichment program where I spent six weeks on a college campus, learning about computers and chemistry.


All these experiences helped me determine my passion for computer science early on, so when it came time to choose a career path in college, it was a no-brainer decision! For other girls, this early access and interest in technology was not a given. For some, it was not even an option.


I noticed this disparity when I began my career as a software engineer with the NSA, moving to other companies like Delta Air Lines, the University of California, Irvine, the United States Air Force, McKesson, etc. I would sit at conference room tables and see no other women, no one else of color. When I would look up the chain of command, I would see no one who looked like me. This was perplexing! I wondered why was there such a lack of diversity in these technology roles.


I soon came to find out that most young girls not only lack exposure to computer science, but they often reach college and don’t even consider computer science as a possibility. And for those who do enter tech, many of them leave. I’ve had several friends leave IT because they felt isolated, different, or that they weren’t part of a “tribe” at work.


My research showed the motivation for both the decision to leave and the decision not to pursue computer science often came back to two things:

  1. A lack of positive female role models to show this path is possible.
  2. A lack of exposure at an early age, leaving many women who choose a STEM path left feeling behind their male counterparts.


So I created Colors of STEM as a response.


The Mission of Colors of STEM


At Colors of STEM, we seek to change the isolation and lack of diversity in these core industries—science, technology, engineering, and math. We provide girls and young women with their own tribe and access to others who are just like them. The site operates as an online social and professional networking platform to reduce the gender gap by giving girls and young women of all colors of the rainbow positive role models and examples of what women are doing in STEM careers.


We are currently 100 members strong, spanning the U.S., U.K., and Australia. We have a Slack channel to make communication easy and we raise awareness of women doing great things through our blog. For people with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, there is an app called STEM Women. When you ask your home device to tell you about a successful woman in science, technology, engineering, and math, it’ll read aloud information about what these amazing women are doing.


The highest request we receive from young girls is around marine biology. Many girls from all over the world are very interested in this line of work. Through Colors of STEM, we are able to partner them with professional marine biologist members who can mentor them and give insight on how to pursue this line of work.


While there’s a lack of diversity in all STEM industries, I’ve personally always felt it in technology. Tech has always been a white male-dominated industry, offering no role models for young girls (especially young girls of color) to look up to. Colors of STEM strives to highlight women making waves in their career so girls feel they can step into these roles when they grow up.


It’s important to send this message early and make an impact when girls are young. For example, according to ComputerScience.org, girls make up more than half of all Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers, yet boys outnumber girls 4:1 in computer science exams. In 2014, not a single girl in Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming took the AP Computer Science exam. It’s statistics like these that Colors of STEM wants to change.


Though I noticed the imbalance in my 23-year career, it really hit home for me when my daughter (who was nine at the time) called herself a computer programmer. My first thought was, “Oh cool! She will follow in my footsteps!” But I suddenly realized if she did, her experiences in the world could be similar to mine. This motivated me to take up the cause and try to the move the needle so the next generation won’t feel isolated the way women in my generation have felt. I want her to go to college and join the world as a computer programmer with an experience totally different and separate from mine!


Lack of Diversity Affects End Results of Tech


People who do not fall into a minority group may think they are not affected by a lack of diversity in technology, but that would be an incorrect assumption.


Consider, for a moment, our society’s increased reliance on AI and machine learning technologies. Most people are not aware how much these systems have infiltrated everyday life. If you apply for a loan, the bank may use a machine-learning program to determine if you qualify. If you are trying to work for a company, they may use machine-learning models to test if you will be a good fit. There are even judges who use machine learning in court to determine if someone is going to be a repeat offender. If the program says yes, the person does not get parole.


I believe this reliance will only grow. It begs the question: How can these technologies perform effectively, improve business, and provide accurate responses if you only have one set of developers from one common background inputting the data used to build the predictive machine-learning models and make decisions? This is a problem we are seeing today that creates biases in technology. These biases affect every person interacting with the technology, even those who aren’t a minority.


There are reports of computer-vision models (the technology that allows computers to see the world around them) that are biased toward African Americans to the point where African Americans don’t even register. This is due to a lack of diverse training data, and it is something I have encountered in my own development work.


For example, when I first began exploring machine learning on my own, I realized I needed to remove biases that could affect the system I was building, called SAM (also known as Suspicious Activity Monitor). SAM is a predictive-policing, machine-learning algorithm that predicts the likelihood of crime (inspired by the pre-crime concept from the movie “Minority Report”). Anyone can take a picture of someone thought to be participating in suspicious activity and tweet it to SAM. He will pull attributes from the photo using computer vision along with additional information from the tweet and run it through a machine-learning model trained on past crime data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Based on his knowledge of past data, he can make predictions on the future and inform you whether or not a crime is about to be committed around you.


In this development process, I did not include race as a data factor, because I did not want this tool to ever racially profile individuals. Other developers from the white, male, computer-science background may not have thought of that.


This example shows that when tech teams have a diverse makeup, there is diversity in thought. The act of considering different data sets and variables outside of ingrained thinking can result in the creation of better solutions and systems.


Diversity can make such a positive impact in these industries. Not only can diversity bring about an improvement of work, but it can help fill the millions of vacant STEM jobs across the U.S. It’s true; studies have shown this daunting reality for a while. A recent Emerson study specifies that “the U.S. will need to fill about 3.5 million jobs by 2025; yet as many as 2 million of those jobs may go unfilled, due to difficulty finding people with the skills in demand.”


When we don’t fill these roles, we slow progress. The solution, in my mind, is simple. Think about it: we have a huge market of untapped potential available in women and people of color. When we increase diversity and bring more of these individuals into the fold of STEM education and jobs, we no longer have a deficit of unfilled roles. For me, it’s a no-brainer.


How to Make a Difference and Promote Diversity


So many organizations have formed in response to this issue—and also to shine a light on it. I am involved in a few, like Women Who Code, Technovation, and WEST (Women Entering and Staying in Tech).


Technovation, for example, is a global organization that seeks to expose elementary, middle, and high school girls to computer programming. The program challenges participants to solve an issue in their local community by building a mobile app. They brainstorm and develop prototypes, build the app, and at the end, they write a business plan. At the competitions, they pitch the business plan and the app to a panel of judges. Winning teams walk away with a cash prize. As the leader of the Georgia chapter of this organization, it has been constantly inspiring to see the spark of interest and excitement this competition brings forth in young girls.


Though my professional career and extracurriculars promote gender diversity and exposure to technology, it’s also become a family activity. One Saturday a month, my daughter and I teach an Hour of Code workshop at our local library where we teach elementary school students about coding.


There are so many ways to get involved, from large organizations and nonprofit involvement or volunteering in your local community and sharing your story of success on Colors of STEM.


We are even seeing this issue tackled at the corporate and enterprise level, with many companies creating a Diversity and Inclusion arm of their business. Together with input from employees, initiatives are built to move the needle so that diversity is no longer lacking, but commonplace.


Isn’t that the dream? To live in a world where this is no longer a topic of conversation, because diversity simply “is”.


_____


If you’d be interested in mentoring girls and young women in STEM, please send me a message or visit Colors of STEM for more information.

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Expert Comment

by:Andrew Leniart
A well written and highly interesting read that immediately caught my eye because I have a daughter working in the IT sector myself.

Tech has always been a white male-dominated industry
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics degrees and careers are available to all, regardless of what a person's skin color is, or the shape of their eyes or their gender for that matter. I do fully agree with the sentiment that there is a notable lack of females in these industries.

but they often reach college and don’t even consider computer science as a possibility
Indeed and I've often wondered why myself.

I note you mentioned at the start that your father bought a computer and sat it in your playroom. If parents encourage their children equally, then their interests develop accordingly. My daughter would frequently sit on my lap while I worked at the computer when she was little. She now has more IT related qualifications than I do.

I think this will only self-correct when there are more females in tech industries. It's a kind of "chicken and the egg" type scenario :)

1. A lack of positive female role models to show this path is possible.
Agreed.
2. A lack of exposure at an early age, leaving many women who choose a STEM path left feeling behind their male counterparts.
Again, I would look at the type of parent role models they had. How to educate both current and future adult parents to encourage their children (both male and female) in a way that shows these fields are readily available for them to explore and get into. Without that type of groundwork, it's all just wishful thinking.

The site operates as an online social and professional networking platform to reduce the gender gap by giving girls and young women of all colors of the rainbow positive role models and examples of what women are doing in STEM careers.
I think the biggest battle now is how to get young female children to be interested in pursuing such careers - and though I think articles such as this is definitely a step in the right direction, approaching education departments about school curriculums and educating parents is also as important. Thoughts?

Anyone can take a picture of someone thought to be participating in suspicious activity and tweet it to SAM.
I think you could be embarking on a potentially dangerous path here. Where are such reports sent to? Are they public? Can they be disputed? I have concerns about this approach mainly around privacy and false accusations.  How would you manage those issues?
Isn’t that the dream?
Yes, and I applaud you for taking an initiative. I hope you found my comments thought-provoking.

Nice article. Thanks for writing it.

Regards, Andrew
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by:Nichole LaRue
Really great article! I can relate to a lot of points made in this article. Even though I was exposed to computers and technology at a young age I was never once told by teachers that it could be a career path. My parents may of bought us computers and gadgets, but they themselves had no idea how to use them. I was self diagnosing computer viruses by age 12, making weird Anglefire websites, and designing 'skins' for my Winamp. Even with all that curiosity there was lack of guidance. It's no wonder I gravitated toward Marketing as a career where women are well represented.
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by:Lucas Bishop
I can't speak on behalf of Kesha, who I'm sure has a much more personal experience with the topic, but as the father of a young mixed race girl, here in the US I am fairly passionate about diversity. Some of my perspective...

Is that still the unfortunate culture in the US? I like to think (perhaps naively) that here in Australia, the majority of our population try not to look at people in terms of "color".

I'd like to think the majority treat everyone as equals too, but sadly that's just not not the world we live in.

Here are some recent numbers on the diversity gap within Australia's leadership positions. This doesn't necessarily correlate to STEM directly, but so often leadership is a reflection of the underlying culture. I'm not sure if there is any research into the diversity with STEM career paths in Australia, but I'd assume it to be similar to that of the US or worse if it's not actually being addressed.  

Whilst I fully agree with the sentiment that there is a notable lack of females in these industries, I don't see how the color of skin is of any relevance

As you note, women aren't well represented in the tech field. However, skin color is relevant in that women of color are marginalized even further. While women as a group potentially experience sexism --  women of color are simultaneously exposed to both sexism and racism. The theory of intersectionality discusses this experience, but the easiest way to explain is that women of color are facing more bias and a more complex social dynamic.

Take for example, a recent study of astronomers, where "Across nearly every comparison, women of color experienced the most hostile environment, from the negative remarks observed to their direct experiences of verbal and physical harassment," the authors wrote. That type of data begs the question -- why is the experience different for this group and how can we improve it? The same line of thinking can be used to help gain more entry for that marginalized group in the STEM fields.

Again, I would look at the type of parent role models they had. How to educate both current and future adult parents to encourage their children (both male and female) in a way that shows these fields are readily available for them to explore and get into. Without that type of groundwork, it's all just wishful thinking.

I agree that parenting plays a large role in kids learning STEM related concepts at an early age. When it comes to children of color however you must take into consideration that in the US, a large portion of this demographic is under-privileged, often single-parent households attending middle/high-schools that do not have computer science programs. There are a lot of socio-economic factors at play and that is a much larger discussion than the focus of the article.

Do you have to solve those sociological issues in order to get more young girls of color interested in STEM or to get more women feeling inclusiveness within the industry, today? No.
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Expert Comment

by:Andrew Leniart
as the father of a young mixed race girl, here in the US I am fairly passionate about diversity
I'm not Australian born myself (was barely more than a toddler when my parents migrated here) and copped a fair bit of flack for that at school.

Do you have to solve those sociological issues in order to get more young girls of color interested in STEM or to get more women feeling inclusiveness within the industry, today? No.
Point taken. Thanks for sharing your insights Lucas.
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Author Comment

by:Kesha Williams
As you note, women aren't well represented in the tech field. However, skin color is relevant in that women of color are marginalized even further. While women as a group potentially experience sexism --  women of color are simultaneously exposed to both sexism and racism. The theory of intersectionality discusses this experience, but the easiest way to explain is that women of color are facing more bias and a more complex social dynamic.

I couldn't have said it better, Lucas. Thank you for your insight. Women of color face both sexism and racism in the US. I'm actually speaking at Amazon re:Invent on intersectionality in tech. I hope to see you there!
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