As a black woman working in tech, I often feel like an oddity.
During my first year in Silicon Valley, I was consistently surprised when I walked into project meetings and found myself as the only black person (and often the only woman) in the room.
Nowadays, sadly, I’ve got used to it. In fact, it’s often my white colleagues who are surprised to find me there. They try to hide it, but I can see. Not that I judge them for this; Black people (and especially black women) are rare in tech.
I realize that my career path has been unique and that I didn’t get where I am on my own. Over the past few decades, I’ve benefited from the support of some amazing teachers and mentors who have endeavored to understand what it’s like to be in a tiny minority.
In this post, I’d like to share their approach, along with some of my own insights into how student affairs professionals can best support black and other minority students at their institutions.
First, let’s look at the scale of the problem. Survey after survey has found that black people – and especially black women – are extremely underrepresented in tech companies and classrooms. Only 2% of programmers are black and a study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the tech sector employs a much smaller percentage of black people (7.4%) than the rest of the private sector (14.4%).
The reasons for underrepresentation are complex. But for institutions of higher education, there is one further statistic that stands out. It’s not that black people don’t want to study STEM subjects (as many people often assume); It’s that black people drop out of STEM courses at a much higher rate than their white peers.
“As seniors in high school, blacks were somewhat more likely than whites to report an interest in majoring in STEM,” writes law professor Richard H. Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor Jr. In their book Mismatch.
Citing research on students at Ivy League colleges, they point out that 45% of black students express an interest in studying STEM compared with 41% of white students. However, these once-aspiring minority scientists “were only slightly more than half as likely as whites to finish college with a STEM degree.”
Some commentators have argued that the high attrition rates for black students in STEM are a consequence of affirmative action programs that allow black students to access these courses with lower grades than their white peers. With lower grades, these authors claim, black students are simply not able to keep up with their white classmates. I’m not so sure.
In my experience, there are several reasons why black people (and especially black women) drop out of tech courses.
One of these reasons is actually a consequence of affirmative action programs, but not in the way that these commentators claim it is. It’s not that black people struggle to follow classes; it’s that they are under immense pressure to perform because many of their teachers and peers still see them as “representatives” of their race.
This pressure is something that I know is shared by many of my black colleagues in tech and was recently expressed extremely well by author Mark S. Luckie. “I didn’t want to be the sole representative of a multifaceted group of people or be siloed into focusing on Black issues,” he wrote.
The second reason why black students tend to abandon STEM subjects, at least from my perspective, is that they lack some of the social and professional skills that their white peers take for granted. For instance, many white STEM students come from academically rigorous schools where they are used to being put under pressure. Many black students do not.
In professional environments where developer resources are always scarce, this pressure can adversely affect the performance (and mental health) of black tech workers. To share another example, when I was in college, I learned that many of my white peers had been investing money to pay for their education, even if it was only a small amount, for many years.
Where I grew up, the idea of putting money into the stock market was totally alien. The financial pressure black students are put under may also be a major cause of them dropping out or changing majors.
But enough about the problems. What are the solutions? How can you support black students in tech (and STEM) courses? Well, here’s my experience with what works best.
Focus on communication
When it comes to tech, there is still a problematic assumption that the language we use is “color-blind”. Many STEM teachers and professionals still believe that the code they write and the language they use to describe it is a “neutral” language that is (or should be) as easily understood by a visitor from outer space (or a black person) as by white men. But, unfortunately, this is definitely not the case.
A good example of this bias recently appeared as a story in The Scientist. A biology teacher was trying to explain some aspects of cell division but a student was confused. Yet, when a classmate repeated the concept to that student, something clicked. The fog lifted immediately.
In practice, what this means is that STEM faculty, advisors, and the student affairs professionals who support them should not assume that their minority students don’t “get” their lessons simply because students may respond more slowly. Rather, you should make use of peer learning to allow minority students to express ideas in a language that is comfortable to them. The same principle can then be applied to all of your communications materials, by getting help with your graphic designs, and in using peer learning techniques to mentor students on their career choices.
Drop your assumptions
You are likely well aware of the importance of fostering personal connections when engaging with students. The problem, when it comes to teaching black students in subjects in which they are underrepresented, is that many of the classroom materials available to faculty (or which faculty have developed themselves) make some pretty bold assumptions about the experiences and co-curricular knowledge of their students.
A good example of this is from my own experience. In my sophomore year, a professor tried to explain how to calculate server computational loads in terms of compound interest in finance. It seemed to me that many of my white peers found this example instructive because they seemed to have a “natural” understanding of how compound interest works when you are saving for college. I certainly did not.
At a practical level, this kind of assumption can really get in the way of clear communication. That’s why educators who are successful at encouraging black students’ engagement with STEM subjects make sure they get to know their students before they start their courses. The first day of class sets the tone for what students can expect. Being intentional about learning each person’s name and something else about them — for example, their hometown or a favorite food — is time well spent.
Focus on skills
A third key approach in encouraging black students to engage with STEM subjects is to recognize the reality of their situation, paired with the fact that minority students have a much higher drop-out rate than their white peers.
In my experience, black STEM students tend to be more motivated by the career paths (and increased earnings) that these subjects open up than their white peers, who often report that they are studying coding “just because I’m interested in it”. That might be problematic from a social perspective but, sadly, to support students, you have to play your hand as it’s been dealt.
An effective approach to keep black and other minority students engaged, therefore, is to stress the practical applications of your courses and co-curricular programs, reminding students that the skills they learn will be invaluable in their careers. Some of your white students might go on to academic, research-focused careers. Fewer of your black students will, and your work with them needs to reflect this.
In practice, this might mean encouraging faculty to adapt their syllabi. Instead of a long philosophical discussion on the integrity of Boolean algebra, encourage faculty to give their students some training in cybersecurity. Make sure that students also have experience in a range of front-end development frameworks because ultimately these systems will be the most useful in a few years’ time.
Get training and support
Finally, recognize that you are not on your own. There are plenty of resources out there that will give you ideas and support when it comes to working with black and other minority students. Use them.
The Long Game
So there you have it: My thoughts on how educators can best support black students, drawn from a decade of working and studying in tech. The approaches I’ve described above were those that my most treasured mentors used and that I found useful as a young student looking to break into the tech sector.
That said, I also realize that for many black people looking to go into tech at the moment, the pandemic has come at exactly the wrong time. The economic outlook is bleak enough, without adding the stress of an intensive college course on top of this. But trust me, if they are determined, they can make it, and it’s definitely worth it.
What questions do you still have about supporting black students in tech? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.