By way of explaining the lack of gender and racial diversity among their technical staff, US companies sometimes cite the “pipeline problem“: They would like to hire more women and minorities, they say, but not enough of them are coming up through college STEM programs with the skills tech employers require.
Recent trends suggest, however, that this excuse may be wearing thin. Code.org, a nonprofit that focuses on expanding access to computer science, happily reports this week that the number of both girls and minority students who sat for the College Board’s Advanced Placement exam in computer science registered huge spikes this year, increasing by 135 percent among girls and 170 percent among underrepresented minorities between 2016 and 2017:
Racial diversity in Code.org’s AP Computer Science classrooms exceeds the nation’s average, because of our work in urban schools. While we’re not ready to report aggregate statistics for Code.org’s partner schools, the results we’ve seen from school districts using Code.org are incredible. For example, in Broward County Public Schools, FL, more African American students took AP computer science exams this year than in the entire state of Florida last year, and a significantly higher percentage received a passing grade. Broward County Public Schools also saw record participation by Latinx students, whose participation in AP computer science more than tripled since last year.
Because 70% of students in Code.org CS Principles classrooms indicate they want to pursue computer science after graduation, we are optimistic that these gains will have a downstream impact on diversity in tech at the university and workforce level.
Participation in AP Computer Science is still far from balanced — female students still account for only 27% of all students taking AP Computer Science exams and underrepresented minorities make up just 20%. This problem continues through to higher education, where 83% of university computer science majors are men, and into the workforce as well.
Tech companies are also doing their part to help solve the pipeline problem by partnering with universities, coding bootcamps, and even high schools to help a more diverse cohort of young people discover and pursue tech careers. These efforts are geared toward improving diversity, but also acknowledge the fact that these companies need to hire and retain women and minorities if they hope to meet their enormous needs for skilled talent.
Some critics of tech’s diversity problems, however, fear that this focus on the pipeline masks other problems these companies have with combating discrimination and building inclusive work environments. On top of the challenge of recruiting talent from underrepresented demographics, the tech sector often has difficulty retaining these employees once they are hired, which may indicate that they do not feel welcome, included, or supported in the workplace. Others have posited that the tech sector simply sets its hiring standards too high, and should focus more on hiring employees who are ready to learn and can be trained on the job in the skills they need.