I was excited to share the stage at the Google Faculty Summit with Lucy Sanders and her CS colleagues — and flattered to be a former literature professor in a sea of engineers and scientists.
I understand my fellow panelists’ concern that young women are increasingly underrepresented among CS majors and, consequently, among CS professionals. Underrepresentation — of African Americans among college graduates in general and among CS and other STEM students in particular — is the central concern of my organization, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
My message at Google was that our experience teaches that successful diversity efforts have to have two components — call them supply and demand.
On the supply side, there have to be college graduates with the kind of education the professional job market requires. That’s an area in which UNCF and our 39 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) may be part of the solution. On our campuses, women predominate among CS and related majors. For example, 57 percent of our graduates last June were computer and information science majors, while 63 percent were math majors.
UNCF schools have also entered into combined degree programs with numerous colleges and universities around the country, including Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, and Rensselaer Polytechnic.
Many young people would be glad to go into CS and other STEM disciplines, but find their path blocked by the high cost of college. I shared with the audience at Google two UNCF scholarship programs that demonstrate the potential of well-designed programs to attract good students.
Our fifteen-year, $33 million Merck-UNCF Science Initiative has provided fellowships, internships, other types of support to 407 African American biomedical science students and scholars at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels. It’s a great example of doing well by doing good: Merck makes a material contribution to the education of some of the country’s most promising biomedical students, and in return gets an advance look at the next generation of biomedical scientists.
Another UNCF program I cited at Google, the billion-dollar, twenty-year Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) program, provides financial and — just as important — leadership seminars and peer networking support that enable low-income minority students to attend and succeed at the college of their choice. Thanks to the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, (and yes, I was fully aware of touting to a Google audience a program made possible by the generosity of the founder of Microsoft) GMS has achieved some remarkable results. Independent research demonstrates that Gates Scholars attend better schools, enroll in STEM disciplines, and persist to graduation at higher rates not only than non-Gates minorities, but than the general population of college students.
But as I said at Google, none of these “supply-side” strategies work without the demand side — without, in other words, employers’ commitment to diversity. Employers have to treat diversity the way they treat any other high-priority business objective — and the way Merck and the Gates Foundation approached the successful UNCF scholarship programs they sponsor — not with good faith and best efforts, but with ambitious goals, investments sufficient to reach the goals, and accountability for achieving them.
So I guess the takeaway from my message at Google was that whether we’re talking about Computer Science or STEM disciplines, achieving diversity isn’t a mystery or a trade secret. We know how to create the supply: There are bright, ambitious students out there, students who are long on potential but short on resources and other kinds of support. Provide it and they will come.
All we need is the commitment on the demand side.
Dr. Michael Lomax is President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Negro College Fund, Inc., and a member of the NCWIT Executive Advisory Council.