In February and March 2020, NCWIT hosted a three-part series of online panel discussions called “The Color of Our Future: An Online Conversation Series on the Empowerment and Inclusion of Black Women & Girls in Tech.” Timed to coincide with both Black History Month and Women’s History Month, the series celebrated Black women and girls’ contributions to the computing field while also exploring the barriers and challenges that still exist. This online conversation series is part of the broader NCWIT effort, The Color of Our Future, a thematic strategy that anchors NCWIT programs, initiatives, and research-based resources that take an intersectional approach to broadening the meaningful participation of underrepresented women and girls of color (Black, Latinx, and Native American) to positively impact the future of computing.
The series brought together experts from a wide range of backgrounds for conversations about the experiences of Black girls in tech in the K-12 space, Black women in post-secondary computing education, and Black women in the workforce. Below is a summary of key takeaways from Conversation #1: Black Girls In Tech. The slide decks for all three presentations can be found here.
Summary of Conversation #1: Black Girls In Tech
As NCWIT Research Scientist JeffriAnne Wilder noted in her introduction to this conversation, “Just four percent of all high school students taking AP Computer Science in 2017 were Latinx girls, two percent were Black girls, and less than one percent were Native American / Alaskan Native girls” (Women of Color in Computing Data Brief, Kapor Center, 2018). With these statistics in mind, the first discussion in the Color of Our Future series focused on recommendations for improving access, inclusion, and outcomes for Black girls and women in computing in the K-12 space.
Panelists for this session included NCWIT Community Engagement Manager TJ Alladin; Black Girls Code Curriculum Specialist Ewurabena Ashun; TechBirmingham President Deon Gordon; University of Maryland Baltimore County Computer Science Education Faculty Member Deborah Kariuki; and Student, Activist, Advocate, and Philanthropist Taylor Richardson, AKA Astronaut Starbright. While each panelist shared from their own unique background and experiences in their comments, several common themes emerged from the conversation.
It’s important to assess the specific barriers and challenges that must be overcome in a given situation. As Deon Gordon was describing an after-school enrichment program for Black girls, he noted that the planning process would need to include an understanding of any factors that would make it difficult for students to participate or to continue their learning outside of the program. For example, he asked, “do we have broadband access issues that we now need to start appreciating, will there be transportation barriers… are there any gaps or hurdles just around the adoption or the use of technology?”
Offer younger kids hands-on, playful, and engaging opportunities to explore computational thinking and tech projects. Educators can use informal strategies to pique students’ curiosity about technology. “Let’s say there’s a break or a recess; you could just leave broken-down robot pieces and the instructions on the table… and see how young girls gravitate towards it,” Ewurabena Ashun explained. Later, educators can use lesson time to introduce students to the foundational elements of computational thinking so they can understand how and why a process works. Deborah Kariuki added that for K-3 kids, “We are not really teaching them programming, you know? We are trying to introduce them more to computational thinking and have it be more of a playful experience, because we don’t want to make this another job for them.” As students get older, educators can add drag-and-drop coding and other fun, creative applications.
Be explicit about letting Black girls know about the opportunities that are available to them in computing. A report by the Girl Scouts Research Institute found that 79 percent of girls who said they were uninterested in STEM were not knowledgeable of career choices in STEM fields. Deborah Kariuki observed that many of her high school students “had no idea what was computer science or what they could do with it,” so she made a point of “showing them some of the projects that I worked on when I was at IBM and showing them what programming can do, showing them that programming is in medicine, it’s in art, it’s in music.” She also helped students to see that “when you do any of these subjects, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to sit behind a screen day in and day out… there’s a lot of interesting things you can do.” As TJ Alladin reiterated, “There are different pathways to getting different types of people interested in tech… no [single] answer is the right answer, we’re not all one being, Black girls and women like different things… All of these pathways should be out there because they are all valid pathways, because we need skills in all of these different areas.”
Representation matters. Taylor Richardson urged educators to “continue to find coaches and mentors and professionals who look like us so we can see ourselves represented in a positive way.” Ewurabena Ashun concurred that “in workshops, it’s powerful to see how we have Black women who are leaders and who are actually in the industry.” In addition to advocating for more Black women in computing fields to be represented in popular media such as television and films, the panelists noted that another way to give students access to diverse role models is to invite tech professionals into the classroom as guest speakers. “Most importantly,” Richardson added, “we need those who look like us AND those who don’t to be willing to invest in us.”
Bridge the encouragement gap. The Girl Scouts Research Institute found that “Teacher support and encouragement was lower for African-American and Hispanic girls compared to Caucasian girls.” Some programs address this by working with parents so that they can better support their children in pursuing tech interests. Deon Gordon noticed that parents would often wait on site while their kids attended a workshop, “So now we’re starting to explore opportunities for multigenerational programming, opportunities to get the parents involved as well, the idea being that they’ll be able to take those experiences back into the household, and not only will they be more interested in these potential opportunities for their kid, but they’ll be able to speak to it with a bit more articulation, and they’ll be able to recognize earlier if their child has a serious interest.” In her work, Taylor Richardson strives to encourage Black girls to follow their computing passions, even when there are obstacles to overcome. “Some advice I would give to Black girls… is to just do it, and don’t let anything hold them back. Let them know that you are capable of whatever you put your mind to, remember to stay connected to the essence of who you are, take care of yourself along the way, reach out to others, and just pause and wonder and think to yourself that ‘I can do this,’ and connect to yourself, and not just for yourself, but for other Black girls, too.”