Future Generations Will Suffer If We Don't Solve Unequal Access to Tech

The people designing the world's technology should reflect the diversity of those using it.
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In January of 2016, President Barack Obama announced the Computer Science for All initiative. In his State of the Union address that month, he described its goals as "offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one."

Obama's announcement crystallized a movement that had been fomenting for years—and continues to grow. The Scratch programming environment boasts more than 30 million registered users, the programming-oriented game Minecraft has upwards of 90 million monthly players, and code.org's "Hour of Code" has been used in schools across the United States. Even while children's screen time continues to elicit a sense of fear among many parents, coding is seen as something valuable: an investment in lucrative career options, even a "new literacy" equal in importance to reading and numeracy.

Coding is framed as something that would be equally valuable to all youth—and that should be equally accessible to all. In practice, however, various researchers, including me, have found stark and persistent divides in what kinds of youth are best poised to take advantage of coding lessons, which students have the resources to deepen their learning beyond the most basic concepts, and who gets welcomed into communities that can help them advance. This unequal access threatens to maintain or even worsen many of the existing biases in the technology industry today. Per the U.S. Census, less than 20 percent of computer programmers and software developers are women, less than 6 percent are black, and less than 6 percent are Latinx—and all these proportions are less than half of each group's representation in the general population.

For such a high-paying career to be so arbitrarily exclusive is unjust in itself, but the limited perspectives that are allowed to dominate the industry also get reflected in the technologies that programmers design, which perpetuates the problem.

While overt sexism and racism are crucial issues to address, such problems exist in many fields and can't be the only reason for the especially stark gender disparities in computer science and software engineering. Based on over a decade of studying the causes of these inequities, I have a few clues as to why they persist. For the last four years, I have helped organize a free Minecraft summer camp in Richmond, California, one of the many low-income and lower-connectivity pockets in the San Francisco Bay Area. The camp has served mostly Latinx and African-American kids, and has prioritized recruiting girls. But the struggles we have encountered illustrate some of the broader problems in this space.

Minecraft, Scratch, and the Hour of Code all aim to be gender-inclusive, with features that are meant to appeal to a wide variety of interests. Hour of Code has Wonder Woman- and Frozen-themed tutorials, Scratch is built to support storytelling easily, and Minecraft offers a variety of modes of play. Proponents of "Connected Learning," which aims to use children's interests as a starting point for learning, applaud all of these strategies for their ability to draw in children of all kinds.

Still, my research suggests that these efforts are not enough. Despite actively recruiting girls, we have struggled even to reach equal numbers of boys and girls every year of Minecraft camp. While there are no definitive numbers on girls and women who play Minecraft more broadly, estimates range from less than 10 percent on many servers and online forums to 40 percent in the most actively inclusive ones—but even 40 percent is not parity, and thus not sufficient. Likewise, only 35 percent of Scratch account holders and 40 percent of code.org account holders identified as women or girls in 2014.

Likewise, there are persistent divides along racial and ethnic lines in the worlds of coding and computers. We have found that, while our campers love Minecraft, Minecraft doesn't always love them: The mostly white player skins, the Anglophone-centric servers, and activities that favored cultural tropes more appealing to white middle-class kids (like Harry Potter and group projects where the kids build a police station—instead of, for instance, World Cup-related projects) often made our campers feel invisible within Minecraft culture. Other researchers have found that Minecraft forums and YouTube channels are overwhelmingly populated by white boys and young men, and often speak to a presumed audience of the same.

Finally, few of our campers had a computer that could run Minecraft (most played on a mobile phone or game console), so the more advanced features of the game were not something they could explore at home. Even those who had computers often could not deepen their play into programming, as these advanced features were often difficult to install, requiring someone fluent in English and with sufficient technical skills to help a younger player.

In light of these persistent gender, race, and class divides, what can we do to make pathways into more advanced coding, and jobs in the technology industry, more accessible for more of today's youth? One part is recognizing that some children and young people benefit from serious resources to help them with more advanced coding. Computer scientists often tell the story about how they started programming by describing a natural affinity between themselves and a computer, with nothing else intruding. But this individualistic hero narrative, as alluring as it is, neglects a constellation of resources—technically skilled parents, money for a fast computer and Internet connection, and more—that help such children learn programming in the first place.

Another important but often-neglected piece of the puzzle involves identity—what kids (and adults) think of software engineers and other "techies," and whether that picture matches what they can envision for themselves. These identities can be strongly shaped by the media. For decades now—indeed, some scholars trace this pattern back over more than a century—engineering has been targeted at boys. Even with nominally gender-inclusive offerings, games and tools today face an uphill climb against this long legacy. If the makers of technology do not actively fight misogyny in the industry, they will almost certainly perpetuate it.

The fight is a worthy one—even if computer programming isn't really a "new literacy," it is certainly the key to lucrative careers designing technologies the whole world may use every day. Those designing it should reflect the diversity of those using it.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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