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As Silicon Valley Earns Image as a Boys’ Club of “Tech Bros,” Score One for Diversity

July 10, 2014
by Eli Wolfe

For anyone who suspected the tech sector is a boys’ club, this summer has piled up one bleak affirmation after another.

Following Google’s lead, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn released data confirming their work forces to be overwhelmingly male (also white or Asian). The 23-year-old CEO of Snapchat had to apologize after emails from his fraternity days at Stanford surfaced in which he bragged about shooting lasers at “fat chicks” and getting friends laid by wasted “sororisluts.” Just last week, the dating startup Tinder was forced to contest a sexual harassment and discrimination suit filed by a former executive who charges that Tinder refused to acknowledge her contributions because her fellow co-founders insisted that a 24-year-old “girl founder” would devalue the company.

But a sliver of encouragement can be found at UC Berkeley, where an introduction to computer science class holds forth the potential for a different kind of “creative disruption.”

The Beauty and Joy of Computing, otherwise known as CS 10, has become the first introductory computer science class at Cal to be attended by more women than men since 1993, when the school first started keeping digital records.

It’s a milestone for the University of California but also for Dan Garcia, the course’s creator. After 14 years of teaching computer science, Garcia is well aware that enrollment is skewed toward white and Asian males. “I’ve been focused on diversity for quite a while,” he says, “because I realized the problem is much bigger than Berkeley.”

So Garcia was hardly surprised by recent news about the dearth of diversity in tech. Google disclosed that 70 percent of its workforce is male, with whites the comfortable majority at 61 percent and Asians the overwhelming minority at 31 percent. Hispanics and blacks total just 5 percent of the company’s employees.

Professor Dan Garcia
Dan Garcia

Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn reported only slightly more gender-balanced work forces than Google. And at all four companies, men outnumber women in leadership roles by a ratio of about three to one.

The disclosures have been slammed far and wide. One writer at Gawker mocked Google for prioritizing diverse gadgets over a diverse workforce: “In other words, wild moon shots like face computers and driverless cars are the priority, but not getting technology-obsessed segments of the population a job in the technology industry, even though when it comes to appealing to humans, Google needs the help.”

Google owned up to the problem with a blog post noting, “We’re the first to admit that Google is miles from where we want to be—and that being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution.”

To be fair, this isn’t entirely the tech companies’ fault. In the United States, women hold about 18 percent of computer science degrees, while African American and Hispanic graduates hold just 5 percent.

Scott Percell, a manager at the tech recruitment firm Job Spring Partners, says most companies in Silicon Valley want a diverse workforce. But he contends that small and middle-sized startups often don’t have the resources to reach out to more diverse candidates: “When push comes to shove, companies need to get talent in, especially on the engineering side. They don’t always have the luxury to select their choice.”

All the major players have vowed to improve diversity in their ranks, but Garcia says this is only half of the solution.

In 2009 the Cal professor helped design an introductory computer science course for the College Board and the National Science Foundation. Their goal was to create a course that could be offered to high school AP classes and undergraduate freshman—one that would appeal to demographics that normally steered clear of the field.

Garcia started by taking an existing non-major computer science class, Intro to Symbolic Programming, and re-designing it to express three major themes: computing contains the world, anyone can do it, and you can have fun doing it. The new course, The Beauty and Joy of Computing, pretty accurately sums up the goals.

“Computing is a creative activity,” Garcia says. “That’s a big idea students need to learn, they need to feel, they need to be creative and go do something wonderful to define their interests.”

He set the tone by proposing the course titled Framing a Rigorous Approach to Beauty and Joy for Outreach to Underrepresented Students in Computing at Scale. That’s “FRABJOUS CS” for short, which your brain may dimly recognize from the nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky” in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.

He also threw out the complicated text-based programming language of the original intro course, calling it a major obstacle for students who aren’t flawless typists. He replaced it with a visual programming language called Snap!, which proved to be popular with students who had an easier time understanding and manipulating code.

“I got the vibe that it was just be­cause I was a girl. So I had to prove my­self be­fore we could con­tin­ue on in a nor­mal state.”

“You could relate more with the interface because you could drag blocks onto the page and stick them together to execute some function or computation,” explains Sulaiman Saed Haruna, who took Garcia’s class last fall.

Garcia’s new curriculum still teaches students basic principles of programming such as recursion, concurrency, and simulations. But he grounds them in the real world by spending part of each lecture discussing broad topics such as the social impact of computing, online privacy, artificial intelligence, and video game development.

He tries to drive home the point that the implications for most technology are unintended. For example, Garcia says most of his students take it as a given that electric cars are a boon for the planet. But few of them are aware that the cars run over blind people at a higher rate because the visually impaired, who navigate the world more reliant on their hearing, can’t hear the silent engines.

“If you’re just reading some of the tech blogs, you’ll often see a new technology with the claim that it’s going to change the world,” Garcia says. “You don’t really get to see the full picture.”

Seeing the bigger picture is frequently what hooks his students on computer science. Claire Watanabe, a rising senior who took Garcia’s class last spring, decided to double-major in programming because of it.

“You got to dive into programming, but you also got to see the greater points about computing,” she recalls. “If you felt like you wanted to continue, or even if you didn’t want to continue, it at least showed you how important it is in our world.”

Garcia also redesigned the final for the course. Instead of producing a simple program like a hangman game, students are paired up and instructed to create a project of their choice using the tools they’ve learned. Students in the past have designed a myriad of final projects, including data formulas to create a financially successful blockbuster and video games with dancing robots.

The course has attracted throngs of students attracted by the promise of easy programming—and some by the woefully misinformed rumor that it’s an easy A. But it’s also drawn in students via its reputation as a classroom where women and people of color won’t feel out of place.

“In Garcia’s class I didn’t feel any gender difference, and it does help,” says Sumer Mohammed, who switched her major to computer science after taking the class last year. “When you go into a class and you’re not the minority, you feel more like you want to take part in it.”

While most of the students interviewed say they generally feel comfortable in Berkeley’s classes, they agree that the lack of diversity in other computer science courses makes it difficult to feel completely at ease. The alienation can be acute for women. Watanabe says she noticed that classmates in other computer science courses assumed she wouldn’t have the base knowledge necessary to excel in the major.

“It could have been because of other things, but I got the vibe that it was just because I was a girl,” she says. “So I had to prove myself before we could continue on in a normal state.”

Garcia points out that this message of “not belonging” is reinforced on a daily basis through implicit biases that exclude women and other minorities. He cited as one example the revelation that Google Doodles of historical figures have featured predominantly white males. “A lot of times these errors aren’t intentional,” he says. “But there really is something to the unintentional bias that people need to start talking about.”

Among his ideas for how to correct the problem: Tech companies could increase their supply of diverse talent by hiring top graduates from state and community colleges instead of relying on the traditional pipeline from top-tier universities such as Berkeley and Stanford. Companies also could follow the “Rooney Rule,” after the unofficial NFL policy of considering at least one woman for any open top management position.

But Garcia’s prime focus is at the university level, where he stresses encouragement above all else. He says professors could increase retention of women in their classes by directly contacting students to praise them when they do well on assignments. Once retention is up, a snowball effect starts to occur as a class gains the reputation for being gender balanced. Garcia said this above all else is what will bring more women into computer science.

“When you look around and see a ton of women teaching assistants who are so smart and so brilliant and they look just like you, it makes you feel comfortable,” Garcia says. “It makes you feel happy.”

For now, his class is something of a gender oasis in the field of computer science. Mohammed, who has witnessed the number of women shrink in her classes the further along she gets in the major, said she’s waiting to see what will revolutionize the industry and bring women in. “In CS 10 it’s a 50 percent ratio, but keeping them in computer science is important,” she says.

“That initial exposure is really good, we need to start there. But beyond that, we need to make sure they stay interested.”

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