Tech’s Gender and Race Gap Starts in High School

Eleanor Barkhorn, The Atlantic, January 10, 2014

When people talk about how to diversify the tech field, a common solution is, “Start earlier.” Rather than focus on getting women and minorities hired at tech startups or encouraging them to major in computer science in college, there should be a push to turn them on to the discipline when they’re still teenagers—or even younger.

“It’s already too late,” Paul Graham, founder of the tech entrepreneur boot camp Y Combinator, said last month in a controversial interview. “What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that.”

Right now, the “start early” strategy doesn’t seem to be working: The students doing advanced computer science work in high school remain overwhelmingly white and male. According to data from the College Board compiled by Georgia Tech’s Barbara Ericson, only a small percentage of the high-schoolers taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam are women. Black and Latino students make up an even lower percentage of the test-takers.

Ericson’s analysis of the data shows that in 2013, 18 percent of the students who took the exam were women. Eight percent were Hispanic, and four percent were African-American. In contrast, Latinos make up 22 percent of the school-age population in the U.S.; African-Americans make up 14 percent. {snip}

There are some states where not a single member of one of these groups took the test last year. No women in Mississippi or Montana took it. Seven states had no Hispanic students take the exam: Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota. And 10 states had no Black students take the exam: Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Utah. In some of these states, there simply aren’t many students of any race or gender taking the test, which helps explain the dearth of young women and minorities. {snip}

In California, home of Silicon Valley, a slightly higher-than-average percentage of the test-takers were women: 22 percent. But the percentage of African-American students taking the exam was far lower: just one and a half percent. (The percentage of Hispanic students taking the test in California was about the same as the national average, at eight percent.)

“We were not surprised by Barbara Ericson’s findings because unfortunately, computing courses have historically been dominated by white, male students,” Deborah Davis, spokeswoman for the College Board, wrote in an email to EdWeek.


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