Why Does Broadening Participation in Computing Matter, and What Can You Do to Help?

At NCWIT, we advocate for changing the system, not the individuals. The historical underrepresentation of some groups in computing and engineering stems from systemic exclusion. Exclusionary policies and practices are so baked into the culture of education and the workplace that they often go unseen, especially by people in the majority. Thus, it can appear that individuals from underrepresented groups are not participating at the same levels as individuals from majority groups because they have a deficit of some kind. As a result, well-meaning people often try to help individuals learn how to fit in, how to “lean in” in order to excel. But fixing individuals from underrepresented groups will not change the system for the next generation. In order to shift the status quo and make computing a more equitable field, we need to fix the systems currently in place so that a variety of voices, experiences, and visions create the tech innovations we will use in coming years.
In this blog, we will explain what it means to broaden participation in computing and challenge you to take action. We believe that there is at least one thing every individual can do to change the system.

What Does It Mean to be Underrepresented?

Using the National Science Foundation definitions, underrepresentation in the field of computing refers to people who identify as women, non-binary, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ); persons of Latinx, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska native, native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander descent; and/or those with a disability. The definition also includes persons with little or no access to technology, often from rural, remote or low-income areas. These groups comprise approximately 70 percent of the U.S. population. These categories are useful in many ways, including enabling a deeper understanding of the specific historical circumstances that account for each group’s exclusion and for educating and including students and employees from these groups in culturally sensitive ways. It is also important to understand that no one has just one social identity, and that in the intersections, or overlap, of these social identities — particularly identities of race, gender, sexuality, and class — individuals experience different types of systemic discrimination. In fact, the biases against them are often compounded by the specific intersections.

Why Does Broadening Participation in Computing Matter?

Actively broadening participation in computing to ensure the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups helps achieve several goals we all care about.

  • Social Justice IconSocial Justice. Whole segments of the population who bring a wealth of experience, knowledge and expertise to advancements in technology, are missing from computing fields. Computing is one of the fastest growing fields, with high pay and strong job security. An equitable and inclusive society makes sure that all groups have equal access to all education and career paths, and that once in those classes and jobs, they are included in all opportunities for advancement. This is not currently the case in computing.
  • Lightbulb Innovation IconInnovation. Truly diverse teams — teams made up of individuals from different socio-economic and racial-ethnic backgrounds, with different abilities, and of different genders — are more productive, more profitable, and more innovative than their more homogeneous counterparts. The history of technological innovation has proven that if there are not a wide variety of individuals contributing — individuals with different lived experiences who feel welcomed and included — some ideas and solutions will never be considered.
  • Briefcase IconU.S. Workforce. There is a gap between the number of tech job openings and the number of qualified U.S. candidates who can fill those positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that U.S. companies add approximately 500,000 technology positions each year. In 2018, U.S. colleges and universities graduated only 65,000 computer and information science bachelor’s degree students, a record high, but not nearly enough to fill the need. Even if graduates from other disciplines feed into this pipeline, we will still need more skilled individuals.
  • Upward Arrow above bar graphFinancial Returns. Social science research demonstrates that companies’ profits improve with increased diversity in management and leadership. In addition, mixed gender teams, when managed correctly, demonstrate superior team dynamics and productivity by staying on schedule and under budget. A comprehensive review of current research on gender-diverse teams reveals that they exhibit superior productivity and financial performance compared with homogenous teams.

What Factors Contribute to the Underrepresentation of Some Groups of People?

When there is a relatively homogeneous group doing computer science or engineering, then it begins to seem like only certain kinds of people “belong” in these fields. The field inadvertently reinforces these boundaries of who belongs and who doesn’t, but we can change these norms.

  • Unwelcoming or hostile work and academic environments make it difficult for underrepresented populations to want to pursue, or remain connected to, computing degrees and careers. These environments create isolation, and can lead to stereotype threat and imposter syndrome. An unwelcoming environment sends a message that only certain types of people “belong” in computing. This then means that only some individuals will be able to defy that subtle (or not so subtle) push and remain in the field. When individuals study and work within an environment where they receive messages that they don’t belong, it can make them leave the field entirely, or if they stay, they may look under-confident or on edge, when really they are just reacting to the environment. In a recent NCWIT study, a woman student wrote about her experiences of feeling like she didn’t belong:
    “I was the first girl at my college to ever pursue a degree in computer science… [I] can’t describe the loneliness I felt every day walking into classes dominated by boys. To make matters worse, freshman year, many of my male classmates didn’t take me seriously as a peer, and actively ostracized me from their groups.”
  • Beliefs by those in positions of influence (e.g., counselors, teachers, faculty, recruiters) that some people are not suited to computing, or are less likely to excel, influence decisions at critical points in a student’s journey. In research NCWIT has conducted, students talk about experiences with instructors who look the other way when there is discrimination in class or in group work:
    “It really is hard when authority figures don’t do their jobs. I’ve had that happen a lot — when the authority figures either don’t deal with the problem, or when they ARE the problem.”

    Often these influencers have no intention of excluding any individual student or groups of students, but unconscious biases intervene.

What can you do?

Despite this being a systemic problem, there are many impactful ways individuals can change the status quo. Within your own sphere of influence, you can make a difference by committing to one change at a time.

Below are examples of 15 things you could do. Choose your adventure — based on your sphere of influence — and, take one step today to move the entire field forward.

What role(s) do you play?

What can you do?

CS Educator (Any Level)Meet students where they are and relate CS to their existing knowledge and interests.
K-12 School CounselorTalk about computing as a career and field of study to all students.
K-12 EducatorRecruit more girls and young women into computing clubs and classes.
Post-secondary EducatorLearn how to make your classrooms even more welcoming.
Post-secondary Educator Teaching Introduction to CSChange introductory course curricula and culture to be more inclusive.
CS or Engineering ResearcherInclude BPC activities as a line item in your research funding proposals.
On an Academic Hiring CommitteeEnsure recruiting and hiring practices encourage a diverse pool of candidates.
Responsible for Hiring Technical Positions in IndustryLearn how to recruit talent to promote innovation.
Responsible for Delegating Work Assignments in IndustryMake sure work assignments are delegated equitably among people from different backgrounds.
Conduct Outreach to K-12 StudentsConduct inclusive CS outreach activities with or without computer access.
Conduct K-12 Teacher TrainingsBuild CS strength, and empower K-12 teachers.
Conduct Faculty Professional DevelopmentLearn how to create an inviting classroom environment.
Family Member or Work with FamiliesFind out how families can connect youth to computing.
Someone Who Wants to Influence PolicyWork with other stakeholders to influence education policy.
Someone Who Wants to Engage Others in Organizational ChangePersuade colleagues through strategic communication.
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