If you poke around the average tech company you’ll notice a lot of things. There will be boards scribbled with code, ideas flowing in a stream of buzzwordy consciousness—“Innovate!” “Next gen development!”—and, unfortunately, a whole lot of white faces. Male white faces. That’s because, even though the United States has never been so racially diverse, the insides of some of the biggest tech firms still look like a pre-segregation boys' club.
Part of the problem is that some black and latino students lack a proper pipeline into the industry. But many also feel alienated by the homogeneity of the tech world—and so, even if they study computer science and engineering in college, they opt out professionally. Meanwhile, for a host of reasons, too many young women shy away from science and tech starting in high school.
The good news is that tech companies are aware, with firms including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook taking steps to diversify their staff. Some of these companies are even attempting to get at the root of the problem: If they can make themselves appealing to a diverse set of young people, and particularly young women, early in their academic careers, perhaps this interest will translate to greater racial and gender diversity on their teams down the road.
I recently had the opportunity to see what this type of effort looks like in practice and found the results incredibly inspiring.
Last week, Google teamed up with Red Hook, Brooklyn's Pioneer Works art space for an aptly named event called Art x Code. The event was organized through the tech giant's Made with Code program, which encourages young women to develop a passion for STEM. Throughout the weeklong “summer school,” instructors taught ten young women of color how to build video games from scratch, manipulate virtual reality, and utilize cutting-edge design software such as Scratch, Unity, and Tilt Brush. At the end of the program, each girl “graduated” with both a certificate and the promise of mentorship from both organizations.
When I visited last Thursday, I found the girls wearing VR headsets, laughing, playing, and deeply immersed in digital worlds of their own creation. It looked like a ton of fun, yes, but it was also clearly a vehicle to help them think beyond traditional “feminine fields” and toward potential careers in tech. Some told me they were able to learn a few basic computer skills at school, mostly Photoshop and intro design software, but none had previously been offered this type of comprehensive coding and back-end education in a public institution. Their faces became animated when they discussed the new talents they had acquired, showing off blueprints for video games and programs, or discussed the seeds of lifelong friendships.
None of this passion for programming should be shocking, however. According to research Google and Pioneer Works provided to me, 74% of middle school girls say they’re interested in computer science—but by high school, this drops to 0.3%. By introducing girls just on the precipice to tech, they can potentially help steer them towards new growth opportunities.
Many of the girls at Art x Code had previously participated in a coding initiative organized by Black Girls Rock, an official partner of Google’s Made with Code (not to be confused with Black Girls Code, another Google partner). But others had been nominated from within the local Red Hook community—which, it should be noted, is 80% people of color. Here, they were paired with Pioneer Works’ educators and technologists for a boot camp with days centered on topics such as 3D game design, coding, generative graphics, virtual reality, and the “practicalities of design." At the end of the week, each girl had created the seeds of her own video game empire.
“What we're really trying to do with Mad with Code is to make it a movement,” said Hilary Neve, head of brand communications and strategic initiatives at Google. “This means that we really try to help support things that are already happening in communities, like Pioneer Works and the Red Hook Initiative.”
Neve, who is also tasked with spotting broader trends in culture and then forging new partnerships for Google, thinks creating the Art x Code project was kind of a no-brainer. “Girls like video games, so why not give them the fundamentals of something they really love? For them, it’s realizing that a lot of things that they enjoy are made with code [and that they can make it themselves]. It can be a website, or even something with a cool logo on it. There are so many things in the world that are made with code that if we start exploring and exposing that, it also turns into artistry—and it feels like tomorrow's artistry.”
“To close the gender gap in technology you have to allow girls to understand the basics and make it available to them,” says Pioneer Works education department coordinator Bethany Tabor.
Dave Sheinkopf, the co-director of education at Pioneer Works, looks at the project more pragmatically. “Eighty percent of jobs in the next few years will be in front of computers. So how literate you are with computers is completely linked to how successful you will be job-wise.”
Sheinkopf believes the best way to empower women, especially women of color, is to give them the tools to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. “Code also teaches you critical thinking, logic, problem solving—and to do all these things that, really, when you get down to it, are just life skills. Above that, by having programs like this that center around creativity, collaboration, and fun, we can demonstrate to these girls and their families that it isn't boring to have passion for technology. In fact, it's something that needs to be cultivated and applauded. ”
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.