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 #2: Black Women in Postsecondary Computing Education. The slide decks for all three presentations can be found here.
Summary of Conversation #2: Black Women in Postsecondary Computing Education
While all women remain underrepresented in computing education, there is a critical shortage of women of color (including Black women) earning computing degrees across the post-secondary computing landscape. According to the Women of Color in Computing Data Brief released by the Kapor Center in 2018, three percent of bachelor’s degree earners are Black women, and only two percent of doctoral degree recipients are Black women. The second conversation in the Color of Our Future series focused on broadening the participation of Black women in the postsecondary computing education space, both as students and as faculty.
Panelists for this session included University of Maryland Baltimore County Computer Science Education Faculty Member Deborah Kariuki; Kapor Center Chief Research Officer Allison Scott; and Claflin University Associate Professor of Computer Science Cheryl Swanier. Major themes of the discussion included unique and specific challenges impacting Black women in higher education, and strategies for supporting Black women at every level in academia.
Black women face complex barriers to full participation in postsecondary computing education.
Black women students and faculty may experience isolation. As Deborah Kariuki reflected, “In a class there could be 100 people, and there’s just that one Black female student in a class. That is not a fun place.” Students may lack access to social networks in which other students share valuable information about what different classes or professors are like. Kariuki added, “If you have to work and put yourself through school, you’re not going to avail yourself of too many things happening on campus, even though that would be a good experience. And maybe you might miss out on things like research because that does not pay… and that means that when you go to get jobs, you’re missing some of the aspects that would have helped you.”
Black women students and faculty may also experience challenges related to racial bias. Cheryl Swanier noted, “Black women [faculty] are sometimes exploited in many different ways – sometimes they are given assignments that are mediocre, maybe the salaries are not comparable, and sometimes when Black women make mistakes, their mistakes are remembered, as opposed to their colleagues or their counterparts, or maybe even their mistakes are even amplified.”
Policy changes are needed to address these and other challenges.
As Allison Scott pointed out, when schools set barriers to declaring a computing major as a way of dealing with surging enrollment, these restrictions can disproportionately impact students from underrepresented groups. For example, she said, “if we have arbitrary cutoffs like a 3.5 GPA or some sort of criteria to enter into a computing major, that might also be having a negative impact on who” is able to access the major, “even if the students have interest.”
Individuals and departments can both work to increase the numbers of Black women in postsecondary computing education by focusing on recruitment, retention, and mentorship.
Deborah Kariuki observed that students who are mentored by professors tend to get more opportunities to attend conferences, apply for internships, and participate in research projects, so it’s important for faculty to take an active role in mentoring Black women students. Cheryl Swanier shared, “One way I mentor my students is by advising student organizations. We don’t just talk about computing stuff; we also talk about their future, we talk about issues that they are facing, whether it’s imposter syndrome where they don’t feel like they’re good enough… or the next steps in respect to their major.”
Near-peer role models can also make a big difference in supporting people from underrepresented groups in computing majors. Swanier recalled that in one of her teaching jobs, she recruited freshman women into computing classes by bringing some of her current students into a freshman orientation session. The students “told [the incoming freshmen] about their experiences, and not only that, they invited them to participate in the computing organizations” on campus.