The Color of Our Future is a recently developed plan to anchor NCWIT strategies, programs, and initiatives that aim to advance and broaden the participation of underrepresented women and girls of color (black, Latinx, and Native American) across the tech ecosystem. This workshop will offer highlights from the recent online conversation series and discuss upcoming plans and activities for women and girls of color.
JANNIE: Hello everyone. Welcome to NCWIT Conversations for Change, an online thought leadership series. My name is Jannie Fernandez and I am the Director of the K-12 Alliance and TECHNOLOchicas at NCWIT. It is my pleasure to welcome you to Week 2 of this series, which features speakers with a diverse range of opinions and hopefully, provocative ideas and worldviews.
We wouldn’t be here today without the support of our sponsors and I want to thank the audience in advance, should we experience any bandwidth or other technical issues.
Today’s conversation will consist of a 25-minute strategic conversation between Dr. Cheryl Swanier and Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, followed by a 25-minute interactive Q&A from the audience, and we will conclude with a call to action. We will be posting questions on the screen and encourage our audience to provide their insights by typing their answers into the Q&A window.
If you would like to share or elaborate on your answers live, please use the raised hand function after you’ve typed in your answers, so we can enable others to hear you speak. We will answer as many questions as possible in the live Q&A, but based on the lively discussions from our previous conversations, we will stay 15 minutes extra on the call to get to as many comments and questions as possible. The Color of Our Future is a recently developed plan to anchor NCWIT strategies, programs, and initiatives that aim to advance and broaden the participation of underrepresented women and girls of color across the tech ecosystem. This session will offer highlights from the recent online conversation series and discuss upcoming plans and activities for women and girls of color.
I would like to welcome my colleague, Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, Senior Research Scientist at NCWIT. She will be sharing highlights from the three previous Color of Our Future Conversations.
JEFFRIANNE: Thank you, Jannie. I am really, really excited about today’s conversation and I have to tell you, I’ve had butterflies all week just thinking about today.
Before we jump into our conversation with Dr. Cheryl Swanier, let me spend a moment with you all talking about our “why”. So, addressing the underrepresentation of women and girls of color across the tech ecosystem is so very essential to the work that we do here at NCWIT. We know that women and girls from underrepresented groups face additional barriers related to their participation and engagement in computing and technology within K-12, higher education, and also the tech workforce. Let me share some stats with you all. Some of this may be already familiar, but in 2019, women only represented 26% of the computing workforce, and women of color unfortunately made up a much smaller proportion of the computing field. Asian women in 2019 represented just 7% of the computing workforce. Black women represented a mere 3% of the computing profession. And Hispanic women accounted for just 2% of the computing workforce.
Our mission here at NCWIT is to increase the meaningful and influential participation of people identifying as women and girls. And it’s very important for us to underscore that women and girls, of course, are not a homogenous group. But in fact, we vary in terms of a number of important intersecting identities including, but not limited to, race and ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability, and immigration status. These intersecting identities can produce very different situational experiences and treatment for us, which of course in turn shape our personal and societal perspectives.
Attending to these intersections is so essential to the work and our mission. And here as you can see on this slide, just a sample of our strategic programs and initiatives for women and girls of color and tech from the Modern Figures Podcast, to TECHNOLOchicas; we, of course, are going to be talking about the Color of Our Future Initiative and our Aspirations Program. But I would like to be clear, all of our programs, initiatives, and resources here at NCWIT are intersectional, but we do recognize the value, of course, in targeted approaches.
So, as we look forward, we recognize that in so many ways, that the future is tech. I think we all recognize that computing jobs are among the fastest growing and the highest paying over the next decade and achieving equity in the tech industry MUST be intersectional. Race, class, gender, and all other factors of identity, must be considered when we’re promoting diversity inclusion and change for women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in IT.
So, as Jannie mentioned earlier, we developed The Color of Our Future at the beginning of the year, as an organizational strategy that really looks at anchoring all of the work that we do around advancing the meaningful participation of underrepresented women and girls of color to positively impact the future of tech.
So, of course, recognizing how valuable targeted approaches are, we launched a conversation series about the distinctive voices of Black women and girls. And our goal was pretty clear; we wanted to empower and advocate for the greater inclusion of Black women and girls across the ecosystem; across the tech ecosystem.
And so, we wanted to do that just through simple conversation. So, we held three conversations spanning the month of February, which was Black History Month, and the month of March, which was Women’s History Month, by looking at the K-12 arena, post-secondary higher education, and also the tech workforce. And let me tell you, if you missed out on this series we’re really glad that you’re here today because it was certainly a treat. We had just under 200 attendees participate in these conversations. They were incredibly engaging. We heard from a diverse group of panelists, including Gen Z young Black women, influencers, to pioneers and trailblazers in the field. Our attendees gave us some really positive feedback for each conversation. Everyone really wanted the same thing. They wanted more.
Our participants desired to hear more conversation. They want more avenues for partnership and collaboration. And perhaps most importantly, folks want to keep the momentum and the work moving forward. And with that, I would like to introduce Dr. Cheryl Swanier.
Dr. Cheryl Swanier is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Claflin University, where she was named the Henry N. and Alice Carson Tisdale Endowed Professor and served as the former Department Chair of Mathematics and Computer Science. In her role as Chair, she was successful in strategically obtaining the inaugural ABET accreditation for the Computer Science program at Claflin University and establishing the inaugural Computer Science Advisory Board.
Dr. Swanier is a member of our NCWIT Academic Alliance, where she currently serves on the Academic Alliance Steering Committee, and has previously served as an NCWIT Pacesetter. Dr. Swanier provides mentoring to undergraduate students, she facilitates presentations, she provides opportunities on research experiences, internships, and she has pretty much done it all. When I tell you Dr. Swanier is the epitome of Black girl magic in tech, she truly is. She is absolutely amazing. When you all have a moment, I invite you to go to our website on our agenda to take a longer look at her bio. She truly has done a number of things. So, everyone thank you and welcome to Dr. Cheryl Swanier. Welcome Cheryl.
CHERYL: Thank you so much, JeffriAnne. That was such a wonderful introduction. I am so elated to be a part of this conversation today, so thank you.
JEFFRIANNE: Okay, well let’s get right into it. And actually, before we get right into it, we are peeking at some things in your background. I see maybe a cake and some balloons and so, I think if you could tell us what’s going on in the background because it really is so poignant to our conversation today. What’s going on in your background?
CHERYL: Well, today is a day of celebration for my second oldest daughter, her name is Anna. She graduated from Claflin University with her BS in Computer Science and with a minor in cybersecurity. We had a virtual graduation this morning at 10:00 a.m., and it was awesome. And so I am one proud mama right now.
JEFFRIANNE: Well it’s obvious the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Congratulations to your daughter and congratulations to your entire family. So, Cheryl, you’ve joined us for your second conversation series when we were talking about postsecondary. And I know that we have folks on today who were not able to participate in that conversation. So if you could first, you know — an important thing for us has been to really celebrate and advocate for women of color and to hear their stories. So, if you could just walk us through your journey as a Black woman in the tech workforce and also in education. So, and I have to tell you, don’t sugar coat anything for us. We want to hear everything. Tell us about your story and your journey.
CHERYL: Yes, I’ll be glad to share my story, JeffriAnne. It all began in a small country town called Whitman, Georgia in southwest Georgia, and I grew up in a home of educators. My dad was a math and science teacher, and my mom was a first-grade teacher, so — it was understood that we would get our lesson, and we would graduate from high school, and go to college, and I followed in the footsteps of my parents. They both matriculated at Albany State College, now it’s called Albany State University. There, I received my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and then I went on to The Ohio State University upon graduation. But, when I left Ohio State I was actually recruited by IBM, and for the next 13-15 years, I worked in the tech industry as a computer programmer. While I was working at IBM, I decided to finish up my master’s at the State University of New York. I completed my master’s in Computer Science there. And after being there 5-6 years, I decided it was time to move back south, and I relocated to Georgia and worked for a well-known credit card processing company as a computer programmer, Total System Services, called TSS, now is one of the larger credit card processing organizations in the United States.
But while I was there, you know — really while working in industry it was always my desire to become a CEO. I just wanted to be the CEO of a big tech company. But — as I worked in different places it seemed like my dreams began to fade and it just didn’t seem like my dream was attainable.
So, I decided, “I think I want to be a college president.” And so, I started to inquire about you know — what do I need to do to become a college president, and someone advised me I needed to get my EDD in education and focus on higher administration. And so while working at Total Systems Services, I started to matriculate at Auburn University, and eventually got my EDD; Total System Services paid for it. And then I decided I’ve reached this glass ceiling; I’m not going any further than I am. So, I transitioned, I reinvented myself and became a high school math teacher. Can you believe that?
JEFFRIANNE: No I cannot.
CHERYL: My pay went from here to there. But my lifestyle didn’t change, thankfully. But while I was in K-12 teaching high school math, and also taught a couple of years as a middle school math teacher and I was a department chair as well, you know I’ve always had a love for mathematics, and you know science — and computer science as well. But I said, “Now how am I going to be a college president sitting on the South Side of Columbus teaching at-risk kids?” And so one day I was at a reception, saw this guy I went to college with, at a rival school and I asked him what he was doing. He said, ”Oh, I’m the provost of such and such university.” And I was like wow, if he’s the provost, I’m doing something wrong. I should have been president a long time ago. And so he asked me to give him my resume. I gave him my resume; the next week I was interviewing for a job at Fort Valley State University. And after the interview, they hired me on as an Associate Professor. Not as an Assistant Professor, but as an Associate Professor; which is totally unheard of. And at the same time, I didn’t even have my PhD in Computer Science, only a master’s in Computer Science and a bachelor’s, but I was matriculating at Auburn University trying to finish up my PhD in Computer Science.
Eventually I did, I was offered a job — I took the job at Fort Valley State. And from there, my career just took off. I formed, or re-established the ACM, Association for Computing Machinery organization there. The students had not been involved in any type of organization that relates to their discipline, computer science. We started going to conferences. We started presenting research, posters, at conferences. I had one student who had never flown on an airplane, and our first conference was at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, and that was his first time flying all the way from Fort Valley, Atlanta, Georgia to Redmond, Washington. And now that particular student today is a senior computer programmer. And so — working at Fort Valley State, offered me the opportunity to do a lot of outreach, helped me to work fervently with students from underrepresented groups with the local high school students. And after leaving fort Valley State University, I applied for a position at Claflin University for the Chair of the Department of Computer Science, and I became the chair of that particular department. I was tasked with getting ABET accreditation. And ABET accreditation is a very prestigious accreditation for computer science. It puts a stamp of approval, it validates that the curriculum that’s being offered by the university in computer science is of good quality and the students can rest assured that when they take our courses at Claflin University, when they graduate they will leave with a quality education.
And so — in a nutshell without all the bells and all the whistles, that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s been my journey. But I will say this, the journey to the PhD was not an easy one. But I persevered. I got through it. There were times when my kids got sick. One of my two kids had a bone marrow transplant during the process. My oldest daughter was in a near fatal car accident, and now today she’s a prosecuting attorney. So, I never gave up. I didn’t quit. I kept going. And — I am where I am today because I didn’t quit.
JEFFRIANNE: I love that. And it’s really amazing to hear your story as you transitioned. So, you started off in the tech workforce, then you went into the K-12 arena, then you transitioned into higher ed. And along the way you picked up multiple degrees, all the while doing the second shift of motherhood and doing these other things, rearing a family.
Since we peeled back all these layers, let’s take a moment and talk about your specific journey within computer science education. So, the journey to the PhD which you already said was not easy, and now into, as a tenured faculty member. Were there any specific programs or people who really pushed you forward in those moments where you felt like you weren’t really sure you could keep going?
CHERYL: To be quite frank with you — as you know, I do have an M.Div., I received a Master of Divinity from Emory University, and there is this lady who I call my spiritual mother, and she lives in Minnesota. And so any time I had conflict of any kind, she was always a very positive support system that I could actually lean on for advice, for counsel, even for direction in difficult situations. When maybe I wanted to go left, she would always tell me to go right. And I really respected her wisdom.
JEFFRIANNE: That’s really wonderful. So, things have changed. We were actually supposed to be talking face-to-face, but here we are online which is fantastic. And you were going to talk with us during our face-to-face summit about this project you’re working on called HERstory. And HERstory is a research project which explores the impact that Black women PhDs in computing have made in computing, from both academia and industry. Can you share with us about this research and can you tell us more — why is this work so important, and why is this project so important to you?
CHERYL: So let me put it in context for you. I believe I was at a NCWIT Summit, and Margot Shetterly was one of the keynote speakers, and I was just so inspired by her book, “Hidden Figures.” I was sitting in the audience thinking, “She needs to do a book about me. She needs to do a book about Black women in computing.” And I remember — I never really got a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with her at the actual NCWIT Summit. But on the day we left, she so happened to leave the same day that I left, and she was in the same terminal that I was in. And I saw her and then the bold person that I am, I walked over to her, and I said, “Hi, Margot, Cheryl Swanier from Claflin University, and — I really love your book.” I said, “But can you write a book about me, and my colleagues, about Black women, and computing?” And she said, “No, Cheryl, you write your own narrative. You tell your narrative. No one can tell your narrative better than you can.”
So, we talked maybe 10 or 15 minutes, she began to inspire me, to encourage me and say “You do it.” And so, I don’t know if it was a year later or maybe a few months later, all of a sudden, the inspiration came — HERstory. Untold stories of Black women PhDs in computing. And I began to share with some of my close computer science colleagues. I said we have got to do this. We have to tell our stories. I said, I talked to Margot and she said we have to tell our story before someone else does. And so — and the few friends that I spoke with, they say yes, Cheryl, I think we should do this. And we are here today.
So — basically, the book, a personal — yes it includes research as well, but it also focuses on the personal stories of different Black women in PhDs in computer science. And they tell their stories about their path to the PhD. And some of the struggles that they actually face. Also, in this book, we will talk about some of the contributions that these Black women PhDs in computing have made to computer science, both in academia, as well as in industry. And not only are they going to talk about their contributions, they are also going to talk about the services that they have provided in computer sciences. And also, lastly, the fourth part of the book, which speaks to changing the face of technology, and increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in computing. And so — it’s four different areas in this book that we’re going to focus on as it relates to Black women PhDs in computing.
JEFFRIANNE: That sounds really exciting, I can’t wait for the book to come out. We know that all the women who are contributors to the volume are not here today. So let’s take a moment to talk about what some of those structural barriers in place are. Let’s name them if we could. I think we spent a lot of time during the online series, the second one particularly within higher education, naming some of the specific barriers that Black women face pursuing the doctorate in computer science and also once they achieve the doctorate if they go into academia, some of the other structural barriers that are in place for Black female faculty.
Let’s talk about some of the barriers, what are some of the barriers that really serve as essentially — that make things difficult for Black women in academia.
CHERYL: One thing that I believe makes things really difficult for Black women pursuing the PhD in computer science is working in isolation.
JEFFRIANNE: Okay, talk to me more about that.
CHERYL: — and being the only person in your program. I clearly recall when I was working on my master’s at The Ohio State University, I was the only one. And just suffering with that imposter syndrome. And even when I first got to Auburn University, I couldn’t say I actually worked in isolation because there was a professor there, Dr. Gilbert who happened to be my advisor at the time who had the — had a lab. And his lab consisted of mostly all Black PhDs, but I can definitely say for my master’s, in computer science at both the state University of New York and The Ohio State University, just not feeling like you’re good enough. Or believing that others perceive that you’re not good enough. That you quite can’t make the mark. But the truth of the matter is, you know we are good enough. Because if we were not good enough we wouldn’t not have made it there, you know. And so the key thing is having that support system to help you push through those barriers; the barriers of isolation, the barrier of not feeling good enough. Like you can do this. But the reality of it, you can do it. You are just as smart as your classmate that is sitting next to you.
Now one of the shortcomings is that — like I graduated from an HBCU. And I must admit, and I’m not minimizing my university at all. The resources, the technological resources were not equitable, like they were at The Ohio State University or the State University of New York. So — once I got to The Ohio State University, the playing field was not level, and I had a huge learning curve. And once I was recruited by IBM, and IBM said I will pay for the remainder of your master’s, I was at the State University of New York, guess what? I learned how to strategize, I learned how to navigate grad school, and I learned how to be successful. I learned how to walk up to my classmates and say, “Hi I’m Cheryl. Can I be a part of your study group?” Or ask them about a particular type of homework assignment, just to discuss it broadly so I can get a better conceptual idea of the problem that we were trying to solve.
So — I think it’s good to have support systems in place, so that you don’t have to deal with the barrier of isolation or the barrier of feeling like I’m not good enough — the impostor syndrome.
JEFFRIANNE: Absolutely. And we know that the research tells us exactly what you’re talking about. And that can be cast against the broader landscape of Black women and women of color in academia in general. There are definitely feelings of being isolated because you’re not — there isn’t a critical mass of you. You can’t see other women who look like you to connect with immediately. So, we also heard about feelings of inferiority or feeling imposter. But let’s not let the system off the hook, right? These are all internal things which are very real, but they come from somewhere. So, what things are happening organizationally or culturally that are deeply embedded within the system that makes Black women feel that they’re not good enough?
JEFFRIANNE: I know, I know we only have an hour.
CHERYL: I am going to share this and be a little bit transparent with you.
CHERYL: When I was at The Ohio State University, the first day I met my adviser, who happened to be a white male, the first words out of his mouth was — and I will never forget this, and I will carry this to my grave: “People of your color come into our program and you don’t succeed. You are deficient in this, and you are deficient in that.” I felt like the scum of the Earth.
CHERYL: Mind you, I’m just this 21-year-old country girl coming from South Georgia, and I flew by myself on a little crop duster to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, to be met with that type of opposition. And I was always taught to respect my elders. And I was never the type of student that would talk back or say anything, you know give a negative response. And I just sat there and took my tongue-lashing, if I could call it that. And from that moment forward, it set the tone for the rest of my journey at the Ohio State University. And it did have an impact, but it wasn’t the trigger that made me leave Ohio State and go work with IBM. It was something much deeper than that. But I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it. But it might come out in the book, HERstory. Because even the master’s to the PhD — again the master’s, it was on the path to the PhD. Okay? And part of that journey involved me going to The Ohio State University. But I must say this, and I have to give NCWIT kudos for this. Because it was at NCWIT, that I met a Vice President from The Ohio State University and I was able to share with this Vice President my struggles at The Ohio State University. And she was floored when I shared my story with her.
A few years later The Ohio State University brought me back to The Ohio State University as a distinguished speaker in the College of Engineering. In fact, it was two years ago. And I had a one-on-one meeting and luncheon with the President of the Ohio State University. I met him, there was a luncheon, and I met him. So I believe — they didn’t say it — that was their way of saying to me, “I’m sorry.”
JEFFRIANNE: I think that’s important, I’m so glad you shared that story. I remember when you shared that story initially, and — you know — here we’re going to pivot and ask folks who are participating to drop comments in the Q&A window interface, and questions and I encourage folks who have similar experiences like that. Because we don’t have a poll set up, but I guarantee if we were to poll folks, particularly from underrepresented groups, they have very similar stories.
I had a very similar experience happen to me when I started in my master’s program, with a faculty member telling me, “you can’t do this, you’re not good enough.” Luckily, thankfully, I know who I am right? We who we are. So, I think with that, I would like for us to move into the discussion section of our program here. Where we would like to again open it up to some of our participants. I see we have some questions coming in the Q&A — or we have comments already. Questions and comments coming up in the Q&A, but we would be remiss, Cheryl and Jannie, if we did not spend time thinking about what happens next for us.
So here is the question: “COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted our entire world. So, let’s discuss some of the new barriers in place for Black women and girls in the tech space as a result of the pandemic. What are those barriers and how do we respond to these challenges?”
So if you could share your questions in the Q&A interface, and Jannie if there is something I’m missing for instructions, if you could let us know at this time.
JANNIE: Sure. I just wanted to add that if you see some of the comments or questions in the Q&A window, you can click on the thumbs up to upvote the questions.
CHERYL: JeffriAnne, can I respond to that?
CHERYL: I just want to say that COVID-19 has really put the spotlight on the inequities in computing, in technology. What COVID-19 has done, it has exposed what we have known for a long time, which is the digital divide. Students are not in school, whether it’s in K-12 or higher ed. And what we’ve found out through this COVID-19, is that when our students are at home, some of them don’t have access to the internet. They don’t have access to the technology. And because of that, they are being left, once again, behind. And moreover, we are also seeing that COVID-19 has shown us through technology, you can go to school anywhere. Not just in higher ed, but also in K-12. I mean, we talk about virtual learning, you can’t do a — in a virtual space. With COVID-19 and virtual learning, virtual learning transcends all spaces. So if you want to go to school or high school in another state why couldn’t you? If it’s an excellent school? If you want to go to school in — you know — in another school district in another city within your own state, why couldn’t you? Because what COVID-19 has also shown us is that there are so many positive things that can happen through virtual learning, but the flip side of it is, it also exposes the — what we already know to be true, is the digital divide.
JEFFRIANNE: Absolutely, and we know the divide becomes deeper when it comes to how underrepresented communities and communities of color are impacted. And I — Jannie, I see a couple of questions in the chat if I could respond to, if that’s okay? So, I know that this — the questions right now are not specific to COVID-19 and looking at how to respond to that. So, I would love to engage that question if we could. But in the meantime, if folks are thinking about questions or have comments about that, please don’t hesitate to drop those questions or comments in there. I’ll take an opportunity to address some of the questions currently until chat.
The first question: “Why — why are we only focusing on Black women and girls, what about Latinas?” That’s an excellent question. This session was supposed to be part of our face-to-face convening, and we started off The Color of Our Future, online series looking at the distinctive experiences of Black women and girls. That doesn’t mean that the experiences of other underrepresented women and girls of color aren’t important. However, we started by addressing Black women and girls. The Color of Our Future, broader initiative looks at all underrepresented women and girls of color, and includes Latinas and Native Americans, and other groups in marginalized communities.
This session today is serving as a highlight reel, if you will, of our previous conversation series we had in February and March, and also looking at how we move the work forward. So that’s why we’re only focusing on the experience of Black women and girls at this moment, however, please stay tuned we are going to continue and offer another conversation series, a separate conversation series for Latinas and also for Native Americans, coming up in the very near future.
I also see another question here for Cheryl: “Cheryl, congratulations to your daughter. Can you share with the audience what originally drew you to computer science? So, why computer science?”
CHERYL: That’s an absolutely great question. What actually drew me into computer science was my undergraduate advisor. When I first went to Albany State College I was a math major because I love math so much. My advisor told me computer science and electrical engineering is the thing of the future — “We have a dual-degree program between Albany State and Georgia Tech” — I said okay, how long is the program? He said you have to go to school an extra year. I was like, “Oh, no. That’s too long. A year is too long.” As you can see with all my degrees I’ve been in school over half of my life, better yet, most of my life, but actually it was my undergraduate math professor who advised me to major in computer science. And I’m glad I did.
JEFFRIANNE: That just shows you the importance of encouragement. There’s plenty of research out there that highlights how very important it is, we cannot underestimate the small “you can do it” to the broader, getting someone connected to programs, people, things they have not been exposed to or may not be familiar with. And of course, you know, that’s really the importance of — that’s why our TECHNOLOchicas program is so very important.
So — a couple other questions here for Dr. Swanier: “Dr. Swanier, how would you recommend university departments launch support initiatives and activities for targeted underrepresented groups if the leadership, faculty, staff, representatives themselves are not members of the target group?”
CHERYL: Can you repeat the question one more time?
JEFFRIANNE: I know, I talk fast. So — in a nutshell, how do you recommend university departments launch programs geared at underrepresented students if the faculty members themselves are not part of the underrepresented group?
CHERYL: Wow. Now that’s a challenge, okay. One thing you can do is go to your department chair and have a conversation with them about if you don’t have like a — group or an ACM, Association of Computing Machinery, and let them know you want to start a chapter. Ask him or her if they would support you, and you know, organizing or establishing a chapter there. Go to a faculty member who has shown interest in working with students from underrepresented groups, because if you get a faculty member — or maybe even a faculty member maybe that’s not even in your department who maybe wants to advise the organization, but find somebody who you believe would support you in your endeavor to say, for example, organize an organization for students from underrepresented to groups. Because I know when I went to Fort Valley State University there was no type of organization for underrepresented students.
I started the ACM organization, at least I reestablished it, and the students got involved and sometimes you just have to reestablish or establish organizations for the students. I mean, you don’t have to wait on the faculty member or the administrator to start stuff or organizations. You, the students, can start it, but you just need to get the support of somebody at the university to assist you. It would be better if it came from within your discipline, but if you can’t find someone within your discipline, find somebody at the university. You can go to your Vice President of Student Services and talk with them.
JEFFRIANNE: And when all else fails just go to NCWIT. So we have hundreds of resources, free resources available online that addresses just that question and many others. Also, this of course is the work our Academic Alliance does. So if you are — if you happen to be a member of the majority group and you are looking for ways to support your underrepresented students and your students of color, please connect with us at NCWIT to consider membership. Also, we have a ton of resources that are very practical and accessible guides. From interrupting bias, to male majority allies, we have tips for starting undergraduate groups at your university. If you go to NCWIT.org and look under “Resources” you can sort and filter by Academic Alliance and there are a ton of resources available to you for individuals, for organizations, and I think that’s really the beauty of the work that we do. Because we really help to you know — equip our members to really help to fill in that gap there.
Okay, so here is another question. A lot of these questions are related to resources so we’re going to go there. I think at this point we can hit our final question for the group, which is — we really didn’t have a chance to dig a little bit deeper in how COVID-19 is impacting accessibility for Black women and girls in particular. But also let’s think about, we know the barriers are there. Right? And things are changing every day. We’re learning things every day, and we’re learning more about how these disparities manifest in a variety of contexts, particularly within the context of education.
“Given the added strains during this uncertain times, what solutions and/or remediation strategies look like in the short-term? What can we do in the short-term across the tech ecosystem to address this? And what kinds of practices need to be different in order to support Black women and girls?”
CHERYL: Well one of the things that can be done over the next 6-12 months, and I think some organizations are addressing this, is to provide the technological resources to those students who do not have access to them. I can’t talk about this enough. Because without the access to the technology, the students won’t be able to get the homework done. And so — to me, a foreseeable solution to this type of problem is to get your tech industry and other organizations involved. Get your Googles, and your Microsofts, your Survey Monkeys, you know, all these organizations to help, you know, lighten the load of these students by providing them the technological resources, so that they can do their homework.
For example, I’m here at home. My kids are a little bit fortunate, yes, we have internet access, but even sometimes because of the bandwidth through our cable companies, we can’t all be on access to internet at the same time. Just for the conversation today. I mandated that everybody get off the internet because I didn’t want any technological issues. And so — if cable companies and other organizations, and I know some are — will come together and provide access to the internet for our students, so that they can do their homework.
And — I want to talk about one other barrier that I failed to mention. We have students who are in rural areas, and the students who are in these rural areas forget having access to the technology, they — the infrastructure is not even there to have internet access. So, we need organizations like Verizon, T-Mobile, as well as the cable companies to get the infrastructure in place so that organizations like Google and Microsoft, all these big tech companies can provide some of the technological resources to our students.
JEFFRIANNE: We are getting so many questions here in the chat in our Q&A interface here and I want to jump to a burning question that one of our participants has. And it — I think it’s going to be a little bit — well, I won’t preface it, I’m just going to ask the question.
So, the question is, and all of a sudden it is — give me one moment I need to find it. Okay — the question is: “Would you share how Black women exacerbate exclusion in tech with behaviors such as cliques, crabs-in-the-barrel, etc.?” So, I’m not really getting more elaboration from the question, but I think Cheryl, this participant, wants to talk about intra-racial dynamics that may serve as a barrier for the full engagement and participation of Black women in tech.
CHERYL: So is the question really saying how — I guess I’m really not clear on the question 100 percent. I want to answer it as best as I can.
JEFFRIANNE: To the best of your knowledge, given your experience and we know you have lots of it. To what extent have you seen any exclusionary practices between Black women that prevent their advancement in tech? So how Black women treat each other.
CHERYL: So, it’s like Black on Black.
JEFFRIANNE: That’s it. I was trying to frame it up, intraracial. Right? Intra-racial.
CHERYL: Okay, okay. That’s an excellent question. That’s something I think about often, and there is a saying that I have, and I heard somebody say that “your color is not your kind and your kind is not your color.” And — basically what it’s saying is that sometimes we look to our own Black sister, a Black brother to be there to assist us as we move forward in our career trajectory. But when we go to them instead of them being a help, they’re a hindrance. And I have experienced some of that as a Black woman in tech, in the academy, in industry, and sometimes — it could possibly be that they don’t want the other race to know that we know each other. Or that we’re cool with each other, because they’re trying to climb the ladder themselves. And sometimes you know — is what we call that crab bucket type — you know mentality. Instead of you know — pulling each other up, we’re kicking each other down. But I think the root of the problem is enviousness and jealousy, you know. And that’s just my own personal opinion. We’re all in this thing together. The pie is big enough, everybody can get a slice of it. There is a saying that each joint’s a plier — and what this saying means is that everybody has a part to play. We are a smaller part of the bigger picture. And so — I just think it’s important that as Black women that we should support each other, that we should push each other forward and meet each other with love, kindness, respect, so that we can all share in this huge vision of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in computing.
JEFFRIANNE: I think that’s well said, and I think the sociologist wants to highlight that even though there could be some intra-racial, intra-gender dynamics that, again you cannot let the system off the hook — the broader system in place that reinforces this, and actually propels this. So, in my personal experience I’ve had the best experience with support from women who look like me. Not saying that doesn’t exist, but it is important for us to recognize that again, the broader system in place serves to provide certain barriers. And again, this is also a good time for us to talk about how a person does not need to be a member of an underrepresented group to make a difference. And again, highlighting all the wonderful programs and materials and resources that we have related to women and girls of color and I’ll be referencing a little bit more of those in a moment.
At this time, I would like to turn the session back over to Jannie, she has some important material related to our call to action.
JANNIE: Thank you, JeffriAnne. As you all know, one of the goals we’ve set forth for the The Color of Our Future series is to create a subcommittee on the advancement of Black women and girls in computing. So NCWIT members that join this subcommittee will convene virtually to discuss the co-development of a strategy position or vision statement and recommendations for future activities to support Black women and girls in computing. This is in reference to some of the questions that were on the chat about what initiatives or programming are there specifically. So if you’re interested in being part of a group of thought leaders that can shape and change the advancement of Black women and girls, please respond to our post-session survey and complete the interest form which will — take you no more than two minutes to do so, or you can also send us an email at K12@ncwit.org expressing your interests to join our subcommittee. So on the next slide, JeffriAnne, back to you.
JEFFRIANNE: Thank you, Jannie. And just to highlight the work we’re doing, The Color of Our Future and NCWIT resources in general, are not just geared towards Black women and girls or just underrepresented women and girls of color. We consider intersectionality as an integral lens and perspective we take in our approach to all of our work.
I just want to take a moment to highlight some of the resources that would be very helpful and related to our conversation today. You can access these and many, many other resources on our website, NCWIT.org. And, if you go to our resources — there was a question in the chat earlier about whether or not The Color of Our Future, the previous three conversations series, if that was available online. It is, in fact, available online. You can access the recording of the conversation and also have access to the slide decks so please indulge yourself in that. It was a really, really great series and again I know today we’re just scratching the surface, and again I think that these kinds of conversations show us how important this work is, how important it is to share our stories, and how important it is to keep the conversations going. So — we have a ton of different resources that will be helpful and also pertinent to our conversation. I also want to take — if we go to the next slide, please.
I also want to take the opportunity to invite you all if you have not signed up already, we have another event happening today, at 5:00 p.m. Mountain Time, we will be hosting a Twitter chat elevating the voices of Black women and girls and in computing, which will feature NCWIT and IAAMCS, the Institute for African American Mentoring and Computer Science. And NCWIT and IAAMCS have a collaborative partnership that is known as the Modern Figures Podcast. So if you have not heard of the Modern Figures Podcast please join us, we’re going to be digging deeper into the conversation related to the podcast, and also continuing to talk about the important issues related to Black women and girls in computing. So — actually you don’t need to register. I apologize, you just need a Twitter account. So please join us at 5:00 p.m. Mountain today.
And so as we near the hour, please feel free to stay on with us beyond the 1:00 hour Mountain Time, or 3:00 Eastern or whatever time zone you’re in. We are going to stay on for an additional 15 minutes to keep the conversation going. There are lots of great questions in the chat that we didn’t have a chance to address. So, please stay on with us as we keep the conversation. If you’re not able to stay on with us, we thank you so very much for joining us.
So as you know, evaluation is a really important piece of the work that we do, for ourselves and for our member organizations. And so in that light, we highly encourage you to complete the short pop-up survey that is going to be coming to your email to provide feedback on this session. We really do use this information to assess and to approve our work.
So, I would like to take this opportunity now to thank our sponsors, who have made the Conversations for Change series possible. Finally, I would like to thank all the wonderful people behind the scenes who made this webinar possible. Our Q&A room monitors, our event staff, the research team, and our NCWIT leadership. So now this brings us to the formal ending of our session, and actually I have — I forgot one thing so I’m going to go ahead and do that before we formally close.
We have college students, anyone who — any college students or folks who are working with undergraduate students, we have an Aspirations and Computing Community that is a part of NCWIT and so — that’s a really great program and initiative. So there are definitely ways for you to connect college students if you go to aspirations.org, you can learn more about joining the AiC Community.
So with that, thank you all very much. Dr. Swanier, thank you, can you join us again as we say our final farewell to the conversation?
JEFFRIANNE: Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for continuing the conversation, and at this time we are going to move on into the, I guess, after-15-minute show of our session.
JANNIE: JeffriAnne, I wanted to bring one of these questions to your attention and also remind you that if you would like to provide your own thoughts and feedback, please use the hand raise or raise your hand function on the Q&A window. The question is: “What advice or resources do you have for an underrepresented person changing careers into software engineering, late in their life?”
CHERYL: So I believe it’s always good to reinvent yourself. As you notice during the conversation, I shared with you all that I’ve reinvented myself at least three times. From working as a computer programmer, to industry, to being a K-12 educator, and now I’m a postsecondary higher ed professor. So — I think it’s great that you’ve decided to reinvent yourself again in the tech industry, there is nothing wrong with that. So go for it.
JANNIE: Thank you. Here’s a tough question: “How do you establish support systems when you’re isolated?”
CHERYL: Wow. That is a tough question. First, you have to stop being isolated. If there is somebody in your class that you feel like you can go and talk to, talk to that person and from there, get to know that person. Also start with your advisor. If your advisor is somebody that you can talk with, talk to your advisor. If not, seek out another faculty member, or even a staff person. Because sometimes you’ll find that staff people could be the best support people ever. If you’re a member of a church, or a social organization, try to connect with them. I know sometimes it’s hard if you’re used to being by yourself. Just introduce yourself. You know, say, “Hi. I’m Cheryl. And I like coding. What do you like to do?” So sometimes you just have to do the ice-breaker, and just introduce yourself. So just come out of your comfort zone of being alone, and just go for it.
JEFFRIANNE: I also think there are some really great organizations that exist outside of the university community that were designed because of people feeling isolated and not connected, right? So, I don’t know the social location of the person who prompted the question, but we’ll just throw some organizations out there. We know that there is Black ComputeHER, which is an organization for Black women in the tech force. There is also NSBC, the National Society of Blacks and Computing, which is targeted towards the university and academic community for folks in the post-secondary space. Jannie, I know that we’re probably going to mention a few other organizations as well.
JANNIE: Yes, definitely we’re both on the same page. There’s Systers from AnitaB.org., we have TECHNOLOchicas at NCWIT, IAAMCS — so definitely seeking out professional organizations or groups that share similar interests can certainly help those feelings of isolation.
JEFFRIANNE: And we can’t forget Aspirations. Right?
JANNIE: Absolutely. Yes. Here’s an interesting question. It states, “This is very interesting that you had worked as a computer programmer, Cheryl, and you had taught school, yet you felt like you didn’t belong. How do you explain the feeling of highly qualified Black women feeling like they don’t belong?”
CHERYL: Well I felt like I didn’t belong when I was matriculating at The Ohio State University. Once I began working in the workforce at IBM, I must admit I was the only one. What do I mean by the only one? I was the only Black woman in my division. But there were other Black people that were working within the organization and other divisions. So outside of IBM, I did social things. There were people that I knew, and we did things together. I left corporate because I reached a glass ceiling. I was on the technical path and I went as far as I could go technically. I was a lead, I was not on the managerial path. In terms of the K-12, and higher ed, I worked at predominantly Black institutions and so — I was not alone. I’m more seasoned now, let me just say that. So, versus my early years, in my 20s, I was not so seasoned, but through life experiences, I’m a lot more seasoned about a lot of things. So today, I am not isolated. But when I was 21 years old, 22 years old, at The Ohio State University, I was isolated.
JANNIE: Thank you for that Cheryl. Here’s a question for both of you, JeffriAnne and Cheryl, since you were both in academia: “What can faculty allies do in terms of both small and large actions to support women of color in their programs?”
JEFFRIANNE: So I spent ten years as a faculty member at a predominately White institution before I joined NCWIT, and I think that my presence was a draw. So I think just physically being there — I mean, I vividly recall first year at my former university, students just kind of showing up in the hallway where my office was because they heard there was a Black woman. Where is this Black woman? Where is this person? So, I think that, you know, barring having faculty of color in a particular department or on a campus is really — it’s important for faculty members to, you know, if you’re passionate about this work, definitely as I mentioned before, you can be an ally in making sure that computer science is more inclusive and engaging more women of color. So, I think again connecting with NCWIT with our Academic Alliance, finding out various ways in which you can connect with the programs and groups and initiatives, so that’s the larger things. The smaller things on your campus, you can always start with if campuses have offices of multicultural affairs. Many campuses now have within the student affairs and also in the academic affairs side, diversity offices in various aspects that will help with those kinds of things. So, you know I think those are — there are resources out there that we may not necessarily think about.
CHERYL: And I agree with what JeffriAnne said but I want to add too because I come from a HBCU, but contrary to what a lot of people may think or believe, most of the faculty in computer science at HBCUs are not African American. When I went to Fort Valley State University, I was the only African American PhD in computer science. At Claflin University when I first went there, I was the only African American there and then a month or two later another African American came along and then — we had a third African American and now we have three African American PhDs within our Computer Science department. So, a lot of times you know — when I first got there, just like JeffriAnne said, students came by to say who is this Black woman who is the chair of this department? And who is this Black faculty member? In fact, the students have shared with me they were glad to see a Black face. They were glad to see someone who looked like them.
JANNIE: We have two questions related to advice that we can offer to high school students of color as they try to pursue computing degrees or computing fields once they graduate. I would say that in addition to some of the things we mentioned — being part of a community such as the Aspirations and Computing Community, there are lots of resources on NCWIT that are specific to K-12, to the K-12 space, that address issues like that, such as providing a welcoming environment, how to encourage students to pursue and persist in computing fields. JeffriAnne or Cheryl, do you have any additional thoughts for advice for high school students pursuing computing?
JEFFRIANNE: So, we’re getting lots of questions about a lot of programs that we currently have at NCWIT. So, I think again the answer is ensuring folks get connected to programs like Aspirations, and other things that we have available to ensure that people are getting connected. And actually, Jannie, as you were reading that question I was looking for a question that I saw in the chat. There was a parent of a daughter who is an undergraduate student who wants to know how they get connected. How do people get connected to NCWIT? They themselves or if they have a daughter, or a family member or someone they know needs to get plugged in. What can they do?
JANNIE: Well again, in addition to the Aspirations Community and finding a community where they feel supported and encouraged, one of the things that I personally like to share with students is that — not to compare to their journey with anything else’s. That their experiences, whether they’re women of color or not, are going to be different from the other students sitting in that same classroom. So making sure that they — that they acknowledge the fact that no two journeys are similar. It’s one of the things that may help them navigate through their postsecondary journey, so to speak.
CHERYL: And I want to add that I believe in early exposure and getting involved even as early as elementary and middle school, particularly high school students. If you have a strong desire or interest, you know — and if your school offers any type of programs, or courses, in computing, whether it’s a Java course or a Python course, strongly encourage your teachers and your counselors to assist you in getting enrolled in those courses so that you at least have that knowledge prior to entering higher ed.
JANNIE: I think we may have time for one more question and it’s also in the post-secondary space. “Basically, how can you launch initiatives or activities for underrepresented students if you don’t have the support of your leadership? Or, what would your recommendations be?”
CHERYL: So, I have an answer for that. Any time I do anything I always believe that you know — God bless the child that has its own. And so, one of the things that I did when I was at Fort Valley State was I worked with the local non-profit organization such as Girls, Inc. and Boys and Girls Club. I would take my students there to serve as peer leaders and they would teach the young girls, the young girls and boys how to write code, how to build a website, how to program a robot. And since I’ve been at Claflin University, I started my own organization — a project called “Cool Girls Code,” where this is an outreach initiative where I partner with the local school district. Go to the high school, talk with the principal, say, “Hey, I have this organization, this project that I’m working on,” in my case, Cool Girls Code, and it’s an outreach initiative. You can either bring the students to your school or you can go to the school once or twice a week. You get some of your students to buy into your project, and if they like what you’re doing they’ll buy in. Maybe two or three days a week, you can see your students to that school and let the school provide — you know the resources like the computer lab, and possibly the software. They may have the software, but there are so many things on the Internet, in terms of technological resources that you can use to engage the students and teach them about computing. So — I say go for it. Go to your non-profit organization like Girls, Inc., Boys and Girls Club. Go to your local elementary, middle school, and high schools, and talk to the administrators there.
JANNIE: Thank you so much. Also, NCWIT’s Extension Services Program which takes a holistic approach at gaining buy in from colleagues. It also looks at teaching and curriculum, so, if you get a chance go to NCWIT.org and look up our Extension Services Program.
So, it looks like we are just about 15 minutes past the hour. I will let JeffriAnne send us off, but on a personal note, thank you so much to all of you who joined us today. Dr. Swanier, very appreciative to always chat with you. It’s a pleasure. JeffriAnne.
JEFFRIANNE: Wow, what a wonderful conversation. I really enjoy talking about these experiences and I look forward to more. Please join us this evening for the Twitter chat. Also, next week there are more wonderful conversations happening around our conversation series. Please go to our website. So, thank you to everyone involved. I know that I said thank yous before, and I hope I have not missed anyone. So, thank you all so much for joining us this afternoon, and we will bid you all adieu.
CHERYL: Thank you!