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Tech's Gender and Race Gap Starts in High School (theatlantic.com)
28 points by saiprashanth93 1376 days ago | hide | past | web | 48 comments | favorite

Can someone please explain to me why I am supposed to care about equality in gender and race representation in this field? Because quite frankly, I don't, and everywhere I look on the Internet, people are universally accepting this as a disastrous problem which must immediately be fixed.

The comments on this article (and the article in general) all seem to imply that women in technology are bullied or ignored into oblivion. For the record, there were several girls in my high school AP Computer Science class, two were not white, and they all did pretty well for themselves both in the class and after it. They were not given any special treatment, positive or negative. Maybe I just happened to have had a great experience, but all these claims about how "There's a higher obstacle to overcome in the perception of computer science for girls" seem flaky at best.

It seems to me that we should universally encourage people to do what they're good at, regardless of race or gender, or the field they want to enter. Giving so much attention to women/minorities in technology just feels unnecessary.

Because programming and technology is a current source of good jobs that pay well and provide social prestige. Women and racial minorities want a larger cut of that action.

You can sugar coat it in any fancy words you like, but ultimately it comes down to this.

A story about Neil deGrasse Tyson, the world-renowned astrophysicist and science communicator, comes to mind.

Tyson's first TV appearance came when he was in graduate school. A local network asked him to explain a meteor shower. Initially, Tyson felt shy and uncomfortable with the publicity.

After he did the interview, he became more observant of the media and noticed something strange: he didn't see any other black men featured in segments that didn't have to do with being black. Sure, there were well-intentioned pieces highlighting the struggles of black Americans, but there weren't any other segments in which an expert, who happened to be black, discussed science.

That realization is part of what inspired Tyson to pursue physics and speak to audiences about science. I think his story speaks volumes about the tone with which we, members of the "tech community," discuss the race and gender gap.

Tyson's message was simple: show, don't tell. In other words, don't just examine why certain groups are underrepresented and dwell on the inequality. Instead, counterbalance these types of stories with stories that show how members of the underrepresented groups are making progress.

During the past few days I've seen dozens of articles about the disadvantages that women in tech face. But I haven't seen a proportionate number of stories about the women who are succeeding in the industry.

Tyson said that, for many American TV viewers, seeing one "smart black man" discuss science was enough to overturn deeply ingrained stereotypes. Stories about female founders succeeding are equally powerful, and we should highlight them in addition to focusing on the inequalities.

Tyson said that, for many American TV viewers, seeing one "smart black man" discuss science was enough to overturn deeply ingrained stereotypes. Stories about female founders succeeding are equally powerful, and we should highlight them in addition to focusing on the inequalities.

And how has that resulted in reducing the race disparity in science? Our problems run far deeper.

Similarly, the idea that tech disparities are rooted in high school is absolutely laughable. Socioeconomic differences manifest in HUGE easily observable differences in education, well before kids even start kindergarten.

> And how has that resulted in reducing the race disparity in science?

Well, for one thing, he may inspire a lot of black kids to pursue science, when they otherwise might have decided that science isn't for black kids.

Examples and inspiration are powerful things.

Similarly, I suspect a lot of girls and non-white boys in school might feel that tech isn't fashionable/cool/otherwise acceptable for them, while it is for white boys. Such preconceptions need to be disproven.

don't just examine why certain groups are underrepresented and dwell on the inequality.

Did Tyson actually say this or are you putting words in his mouth? "Dwell on the inequality"? That sounds like "Starving people of the world shouldn't dwell on their hunger, they should figure out how to solve it themselves!".

It's important to recognize the words "don't just dwell" in that paragraph as well as the last paragraph, which says "in addition to focusing on inequality." Tyson wasn't encouraging anyone to ignore problems.

In California, home of Silicon Valley, a slightly higher-than-average percentage of the test-takers were women: 22 percent. But the percentage of African-American students taking the exam was far lower: just one and a half percent.

That 1.5% participation rate for blacks is about the same as their attendence at Yosemite National Park.

Of course, very few are actually aware of the Sierra Club's racist history. The irony should not be lost: not only is the sierra club a supposedly "progressive" organization, it was founded and lead from the heart of the culture that begat silicon valley. Its earliest and most prominent members were products of Stanford and Berkeley, and influential lawyers and academics. Interestingly, however, they were not sexists in the exclusionary sense. The tended to bring their wives along, at least the more adventurous ones, who were on a variety of recorded early expiditions. Of course, this was still before women could vote.

Why does everything have to be evaluated in terms of encouraging one gender to do X or encouraging one race to do Y? Why not just generally encourage humans to be open to learn things they may find interesting or useful?

It seems like that's not happening, and until we figure out why and fix it, we're at least trying to compensate.

The women I know learn and learned a lot of things, just not computer science. Why is computer science better than other things?

Because people with technical knowledge are considered in many humanities circles to be a priveleged group that is oppressing others. (Especially in the Bay)

The Bay protest scene is hilarious. White people with trust funds yelling at Indian immigrants on the behalf of black people.

Because certain groups face unique discrimination that other groups don't face, and general encouragement does nothing to solve those issues for them.

Please understand privilege.

Unfortunately privilege is not black and white, as postmodern feminists seem to believe. Things aren't as simple as "white people prosper, black people suffer" or "men dash through the red carpet, women are forcefully held back".

There are a lot of factors and variables that determine privilege. Being a white man alone does not assure you success and consequently being a black woman alone does not assure you failure. How does white male privilege help the social outcasts who live on the fringes, have been effectively ostracized by their peers and live solely for the virtual world?

Life on Earth is a constant struggle. It is a struggle in the wilderness, and it is also a struggle in Information Age society. Invoking privilege is meaningless without context, simply because it is so wildly variable and can range from moderately useful to completely negligible.

The way postmodern feminists use "privilege" is as a copout either to declare a group as weak and in need of being pampered (which is prejudiced, but for some reason is not considered to be) or to trivialize achievements as if they were solely based on privilege, and not on, you know... giving your 10,000 hours of hard work. Privilege may have given a boost, it may have not.

Feminists are always campaigning that we end gender binaries. Along with that, we also need to end silly racial and social binaries. How does male privilege help the countless of disposable pawns who die brutally in wars and conflicts? How did white privilege help the Slavs or the Irish? The Samis? I'm sure genocide victims were happy about their inherent biological characteristics giving them privilege and shielding them from extermination.

In the contemporary Western world, the barriers are remarkably lower than ever before. Especially for software development, which despite all the talk about misogynistic environments, has a very low entry barrier at the end of the day. Ribald conference presentations haven't stopped anyone from downloading a Ruby interpreter and coding. I hope so, at least.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be advocacy groups for underrepresented people, but ultimately we shouldn't be operating on preconceived biases and emotions to fix the demographics issue. We shouldn't even be seeing demographics as a #1 critical priority, but rather we should give everyone resources to participate equally. If they don't want to, they don't. Don't pester them or think you're helping anyone by posting provocative blog articles filled with postmodern lingo.

Related to this, it seems like there should be a FAQ for "women in tech". Does such a thing exist?

Because social justice

To try to convince ourselves diversity will work.

We're not the first empire to go out this way, nor will we be the last.

You should certainly click through and just look at the data:


Basically nobody takes this test. I think producing a finely detailed list of observations like "no females took the exam in Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming" is a little weird. Because only twelve students total took the test in all of those states put together!

I certainly agree that more women and minorities should be encouraged to take it. But a prerequisite is probably getting it on the curriculum in schools at all.

I think it starts far earlier than that. I know the reason why I and many others are in programming. Legos and video games. Your interests are shaped from the toys you play with and the activities you do from infancy. Stop giving girls dolls to play with and give them a toy that requires them to think more.

>Stop giving girls dolls to play with and give them a toy that requires them to think more.

actually the first toys i remember are dolls that i inherited from my cousin sister. Didn't help though - top math/physics grades through school, regional math/physics competitions 2nd place, math department at one of the top Russian universities (dropped from PhD at the end), and programmer for the last 2 decades. Left brained to the point of moronism. (My father about the same. His single mother couldn't afford nor legos nor dolls, pretty much nothing. And from what little i know about my grand-dad on this side - his left brain ruled like crazy too).

Are girls really not given Legos? I find that hard to believe. And while perhaps they get dolls, boys get toy cars, which don't teach you anything technical either.

I actually checked Amazon this christmas and if you looked at the "experiments and science" stuff for example, the gift recommendations for boys and girls where exactly the same. There were some boy/girl specific categories (like "princesses"), but for the "normal" categories there was no difference for the genders.

sssh... you'll interrupt the narrative.

Maybe women on average just aren't as interested in technology? My elementary school teachers were overwhelmingly women.

Just because the sexes should be treated equally under the law doesn't mean we should expect them to have identical preferences.

Sure, Ivan. Just feed into the stereotypical myth that women just don't want to program - because their female brains can't handle anything beyond cooking, cleaning, and child raising. Is that what you're trying to say, broski?

> Sure, Ivan. Just feed into the stereotypical myth that women just don't want to program - because their female brains can't handle anything beyond cooking, cleaning, and child raising. Is that what you're trying to say, broski?

I did not say anything anything like that. Society is filled with people completely capable of doing an activity who choose not to do it. Despite what you suggest, preference and capability are different things.

Most of us on HN are lucky to live in a society where both sexes can choose the career they pursue. Let's be careful not to fault one sex because on average they chose to not make the same career choices that we made.

stereotypical myth about stereotypical myth.

That's a colourful interpretation.

Seriously? No Asians are mentioned at all.

Are Asians underrepresented in technology?

Personally, I think they are underrepresented in technology leadership.

I go to a "technical" high school, and the only useful CS course available is Cisco Networking Academy. It's great and I've learned a lot taking it, but it's a junior/senior level only class and younger students' only option is Microsoft Office/Adobe courses. Additionally, the only girl in my class isn't even planning on entering the tech field, and there aren't any girls at all in the class below me.

In High School?

Try: before you're even born.

that depends on who you blame for development of the differences (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_gender_differen...), school district or evolution :)

Rather than focus on getting women and minorities hired at tech startups or encouraging them to major in computer science in college, there should be a push to turn them on to the discipline when they're still teenagers—or even younger.

Most movements and organizations dedicated to advancing minorities in CS have largely focused on the former.

While starting off younger does have advantages (although your skills might stagnate at a certain point where a person who started later has just caught up with you), I'm not familiar with any push to do so.

There's a push to introduce compulsory coding classes, but that's distinct.

Unsurprisingly, the article's only source to this claim is PG's out-of-context statement that already got beaten until it was a carcass.

I had a bad experience with my high school computer science classes (both the AP Java curriculum and a teacher-designed curriculum). No one learned anything in that class: You either already had some experience with programming and were thus far beyond the scope of the curriculum, or didn't know anything and were introduced to difficult new ideas by a horribly designed curriculum and ineffectual teacher. `What does "public static void main (String []args)"[1] mean? Why do I have to write all that?` `It's what you put at the start.` `This is stupid, I'm going to play Quake and copy someone's work later.`

It was a pointless and discouraging experience all around. The only people who came out of those classes and actually did anything related to technology were already learning on their own in the first place. A neutral effect at best, more likely negative.

I'd explain further, but instead of complaining more about my specific experience, I'll just get to the point: the problem is not that the high school compsci curricula are somehow biased against people that aren't white and male, it's that the curricula are totally fucking useless and aren't teaching anyone anything. The only way to do "well" in them is to have preexisting programming knowledge, which just happens to mostly exist in middle class boys privileged enough to own a personal computer.[2] The whiteness and maleness of the kids in these classes is not the problem, it is a symptom of a greater problem.

I think to fix the gap, you have to introduce some level of computer science education in elementary school. If you just leave it to kids to discover the magic of computers on their own, it shouldn't be surprising that most kids won't, and the ones with opportunities to use computers at home get a huge head start.

The other thing: We need people in "tech" to be selfless and sacrifice their cushy salaries to contribute to education. My teacher barely knew how to program, and couldn't teach worth a damn either. One memorable moment that stunted my growth as a programmer for a while: She actually, I shit you not, told us that all the programming jobs were being offshored to India and that we shouldn't bother. We believed her. If that is the kind of teacher that we have introducing kids to computer science, there is clearly a problem, because just about any CS undergrad could have done a better job. Given enough freedom (that is sadly nowhere to be found in our bureaucratic education system), they could easily design a curriculum that goes far further than the AP curriculum while being more approachable and more exciting. Here's a start: Ditch Java for Python, Lua, or even (barf) Javascript. Here's another idea that can start as early as elementary school: Give kids ~50 megabytes on a web server and teach them to make their own personal static web pages by hand in HTML, Geocities-style. And another: either ditch Windows XP, or configure the systems so that they aren't completely locked down and impossible to do anything on.

I think you see my point here: These are ideas that should be totally obvious to anyone who cares about education and has basic programming experience, that could make a big difference with very little effort, yet no one is doing anything like them at all. This suggests that there are systemic problems that will not be easy to correct: the early education system is hopelessly bureaucratic, the tech industry has no voice in it, that smart programmers aren't altruistic enough to give up relatively large salaries to work for education...

If I seem bitter about this, it's because I am. My education system (and I suspect many others) only focused on improving the racial divide, barely making any effort to improve curricula, hire better teachers, or think outside of the box in any way, to the detriment of everyone.

[1] I don't speak Java, did I get that right?

[2] It's not just about middle class privilege, though: When I was in school, I think it was actually more common for girls to have personal laptops than boys, probably because parents believe that "if you give a boy a computer, he'll just look at porn all day." Yet still there were very few girls truly interested in computers or taking the computer science classes.

From what I saw in high school and college, the biggest factor in determining whether someone stayed with CS was the quality of the first class in CS. I had a kickass high school CS teacher and he got me off to a great start. In college, some of the 100 level professors were shit, and as a result I knew of a lot of people who decided CS was not for them.

I think improving high school CS classes will make a big impact on students going into the profession.

I think we as professional developers could probably help a lot by volunteering at schools to help give kids exposure to the practical applications of Computer Science, which I think it's far more compelling than just trudging through textbooks. I also think that could give kids access to internships and mentors they wouldn't normally have.

I agree with you 100%. As a former teacher and now professional programmer and volunteer tutor, I have some advice for anyone interested in getting involved: Just show up.

Go to the front desk of the nearest high school and explain you are interested in volunteering as a tutor. They will be very confused and ask what group you are with. They will want to know who you expect to sign off so you can get your "service credits". Just smile and explain again that you are simply interested in volunteering as a tutor. Ask if there is a math, physics, or chemistry teacher you could speak to. Such faculty are usually technical enough that they will at least understand the value of what you are offering. Expect to have to wait and put in a great deal of work before you can even start. Expect to fill out a "CORI" form to check for criminal background. Expect every new person you encounter to be somewhat baffled by the fact that you are not with a group. Expect some to think you are some kind of auditor and be very wary of you. And then, when you are finally sanctioned and scheduled for an afternoon or two a week, expect absolutely no students to show up. Don't quit. After three weeks, if kids still aren't showing up... don't worry, that's normal. Somewhere around a month and a half in, you will be normal enough that you may get some takers. But still you will have to be very outgoing and sell the free service you are offering. Eventually, if you are absolutely consistent, you can get a core group of kids that work with you every time, and it's a hoot.

I love my time tutoring. You should do it too.

The computers at my school are also locked down to the point of uselessness. I have to bring my own laptop every day I need to do any sort of programming, which isn't an option for a lot of people.

Fortunately, not all high schools are like this.

Mine had 1 classroom devoted to computer classes. These computers were Windows NT workstations. Students logged in with normal accounts (not administrators) but there were no other restrictions.

That isn't to say that they didn't lock down any computers. They did. The library computers were essentially chrome books. All you could do was run IE and Word.

I think that starting kids earlier would be a massive improvement. A kid's first exposure to any interesting subject shouldn't have to be a college level course. Would we teach math that way?

Teaching programming in grade school would be so much better. If kids are 10+ years away from hitting the job market, in an area where technology turns over every 5 years, then we don't have to pretend that we're teaching them a job skill. This gives teachers the freedom to teach things within their own limited skill sets, and to have fun with it.

> A kid's first exposure to any interesting subject shouldn't have to be a college level course. Would we teach math that way?

I don't get it. We do teach math that way (unless you think that all math classes are just blobs of an undifferentiated "math" whole).

We don't completely ignore math until high school, suddenly say "so there are these things called numbers," expect to get along to algebra in one semester, and then throw our hands up in the air when that doesn't work out.

At first they are. This is different than the way I learned math as a kid. Today (at least at the elementary school that my kids attended), math starts out with relatively undifferentiated exploration, and hops around from one topic to another. It gains rigor more gradually.

> A kid's first exposure to any interesting subject shouldn't have to be a college level course. Would we teach math that way?

University was when the fun math started for me. :)

This article only cites evidence that the gap is present at high school, not that it actually starts in high-school and not earlier.

"So her message to girls is "Hey, you can create apps to use in emergencies to help people."

Or, you could end up optimizing ads, working in some badly ventilated open plan office. (This is what every developer in my city seems to be doing).

I think the closest I got to programming before college was making summation formulas in Excel.

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