How Megan Smith would solve tech’s diversity problem
Do you know who invented the dishwasher? Until a few weeks ago, neither did Megan Smith.
The country’s chief technology officer used the story of Josephine Cochrane — inventor of the dishwasher and top prize winner at the World’s Fair in 1893 — to make a larger point Wednesday on how the United States can attract more women and minorities into technology careers.
Speaking during an event held at the New America Foundation, Smith used examples like Cochrane and computer science pioneer Grace Hopper to point out the disparity in how computer science is approached in schools. Smith said at the K-12 level, schools need to do more to make sure everyone reaches a “digital literacy,” comparing it to achieving reading or math benchmarks.
“As a grown up, you wouldn’t be talking about how reading was so hard,” Smith said. “We are failing to teach in a way people would enjoy learning [computer science] and they remain terrified of it.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president and CEO of New America, said as a high school student, even she was terrified of computer science after she was told it was extremely math heavy.
“If you tell me tech is math, I’m terrified of it,” Slaughter, who is widely known for her 2012 Atlantic op-ed “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” told the audience. “If you tell me tech is a language, I’ve got no problem with it. Yet in my world, it was always described as math.”
Smith said stigmas like that are part of the reason girls either stay entirely away from computer science or fail to stay with it through their academic career. Whether it’s a negative connotation about math or systemic gender biases, Smith said women face “death by a thousand cuts” in the culture surrounding technology.
Women “face so much unconscious bias, we have to become conscious of what we are doing,” Smith said. “You can explain away any individual person [for leaving computer science], but when you look at it in the aggregate, it’s just astonishing to see how bad it is.”
The numbers support Smith’s view: According to the National Science Foundation, only 18 percent of women earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2012. That’s a drop of nearly 20 percentage points from a high of 37.1 percent in 1984.
Aliya Rahman, program director for Code for Progress, said tech’s diversity problem goes beyond gender biases and is partly rooted in the way the country’s education system is constructed.
“We have a systemic inequity in how we deal with our education funding,” Rahman said. “Where you’re born determines a lot about your access to computers and the curriculum that you are going to be receiving.”
Among the changes Rahman is working toward is a way to connect with all of the development boot camps that are springing up across the country, along with the creation of a standardized competency measure that would better serve people looking to break into science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, jobs.
“When employers say, ‘I want to hire a junior developer who is a Python ninja,’ actually, that means nothing,” Rahman said. “I think it’s possible for us to develop a competency level, some form of ‘You know what you are going to get.'”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also said it’s time to rework the educational system, saying the country needs to be a lot more aggressive in finding role models for females (“Everyone should know who Grace Hopper is,” she said) and should revamp the way material is taught to the next generation.
“So many of these classrooms are stuck in this industrial age,” Rosenworcel said. “You’ve got some number of children sitting there and the teacher speaking at the front, assigning them reading from textbooks that are purchased every seven to 10 years by their school district. That strikes me today as completely crazy. That might have been my educational experience, but that’s not the one I want for my kids in this digital age.”
Rosenworcel said this idea is partly why the FCC extended its E-rate program, which aims to put high-speed broadband and wireless connections in all of America’s classrooms.
“When we start to promote really high-speed broadband in all of our schools, we are going to create a market for teaching tools, devices and STEM education that’s more project-based and different from our sad and tired textbook universe,” Rosenworcel said. “If we can reinvent our schools at the earliest ages with that kind of thinking, we can produce a different pipeline, a more equal pipeline, with one that engages more kids and different kids in STEM education a lot sooner.”
Smith also hopes that time comes quickly, knowing the power diversity can hold.
“Whether it’s solving poverty or cybersecurity, the more diverse the team, the better we are,” Smith said.