What Black Females Think About STEM Education

STEM careers

Lately there has been all this talk about the lack of racial and gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.  This was spurred on by Google revealing a breakdown of their employees by race and gender.  And to no one’s surprise, the tech giant’s workforce is largely white and male.  Yahoo and LinkedIn followed suit with their own diversity reporting with similar findings.

I’ve been a web designer for about five years, and I interact with people on projects with a wide variety of computer programming skills, ranging from talented web developers who build databases to hardcore programmers who can build with C++ and Java in their sleep.  When I go to tech conferences or networking events, I am almost always the only black female in the room.

I recently went back to school to get more formal programming training, and, again, there were very few women and minorities in those classes.  Interestingly enough, the few women and minorities in my classes were all foreigners from India, Russia and Nigeria.

So I wasn’t actually surprised about the lack of workforce diversity at these companies.  Many people have insinuated that racism and sexism has caused this problem.  I’ve never worked for any of these companies, nor do I know anyone who currently works for Google, Yahoo or LinkedIn, so I don’t have any real insight into what is really going on in these respective human resources departments.  I also don’t have any solid proof that there is hiring discrimination.

I just don’t know.

But my initial guess is that there aren’t that many women and people of color working for these companies because there aren’t enough qualified applicants in the job pool because there aren’t enough women and people of color pursuing STEM careers in the first place.  Only 18 percent of women and less than 10 percent of African-Americans and Latinos pursue computer science college degrees.

Before there can be a serious discussion about STEM workforce diversity, we have to look at the state of STEM education in the United States.  From my vantage point, there are many reasons for the lack of non-white guys in STEM industries.  While these apply to all science, engineering and mathematics careers, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on technology education and careers.

1. Lack of role models and mentors – Simply if you don’t see anyone who looks like you working in that field, you are more likely to not want to consider a career in that field.

2. Gender stereotyping – As far as women are concerned, there has been this longstanding stereotype that computer science is a guy thing, geeky and not “feminine.”

3. Lack of training opportunities – Most people working in computer sciences are first introduced to the field while in K-12 schooling.  If you are a girl of color or a low income girl of any color, you most likely attend a crappy public school that probably doesn’t have computers, let alone computer science classes.  Even if you are lucky to have access to computer science classes at your school, most likely those classes don’t count towards your graduation requirements, so there is no incentive to take the classes in the first place.

I remember I had to take a computer science class in high school, and I really hated it because the teacher was an old guy who fell asleep in class and it seemed really hard with all that math.  I never had any real interest in technology until I was already into my journalism career.  By the time I started my career, the writing was on the wall and journalism was being turned upside down by the Internet.  I first got interested in technology when I started to see how the Internet was democratizing the media and making it possible to be your own publisher.

In my spare time, I mentor a couple of 15-year-old African-American girls – Cynthia and Keyshia – and I asked them the other day specifically if they had any interest in STEM classes or careers. Cynthia attends an public school in Boston.  She says she has to take a computer class at her school, but she hates it because her teacher is “soooooo borriiiiing.”  Keyshia attends a suburban public school outside of Boston that offers AP computer science.  She said she doesn’t want to take the class because it seems too hard, too much math and they’re only boys in the class.

Coincidentally, Cynthia and Keyshia are very tech savvy, as their eyes are always glued to their iPhones either texting or posting pictures on Instagram.  However, their tech consumption doesn’t seem to translate to any interest in pursuing a tech career or even finding out how the Instagram mobile app was built.

I recently showed Cynthia and Keyshia how I designed my new website Women Talking, and they were fascinated not only by the design, but how easy and fun it was to design it.  I showed them a little HTML and CSS and how they worked together.  I then helped them to create a slideshow using jQuery for a different website.   Both girls said they were really interested in these web design techniques because they could instantly see the results of their coding in a browser.

“Why don’t they teach stuff like this in my school?” Keyshia said.

Maybe schools should teach computer science in a way that makes it relevant with things we do and use in our daily lives.  Teenagers love to text, maybe there should be classes on how to develop mobile apps for texting.  Video games?  How about a class that not only teaches JavaScript and other game design tools, but also require students to design their own video game by the end of the semester.

Considering the fact that not many American high school students – regardless of race or gender – are taking AP computer science classes anymore, schools need to get more creative about how they teach technology. This would not only expose more kids to possible STEM careers, but also to other traditionally non-STEM careers that now heavily rely on technology (like journalism).  I know if I had learned how to design and develop a website in high school, my career trajectory probably would have been different.

I know there is a lot more to making STEM education and careers more inclusive than I can discuss in this piece, but at least we are starting to have that conversation.

Life After: Kehinde Wiley

Acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley was first introduced to his craft when his mother enrolled him in art school as a child while living in South Central Los Angeles.  He used to visit museums and read art history books with paintings from the Renaissance age of chivalrous white men looking poignantly at their viewers.  Wiley realized early on that these larger than life portraits were more about representing the levels of access, power and racial identity in society.  Wiley has been on a journey to explore these issues ever since.  He recently came to town to deliver a 10-year retrospective on his work and discuss the evolution of identity politics in art.

Wiley started his career taking pictures of black men in the streets of Harlem.  He mainly focused on the power politics of hair and black masculinity.  He would invite the models up to his studio, where they would also view the portraits in his art books, asking “who are all these old white dudes?”  Like Wiley, most of the models were from areas that didn’t have access to this kind of art, which again explains the power dynamics in society.

Wiley took his craft to another level with the “World Stage” series, his best known work of fusing traditional art with the contemporary street life of men of color around the world.  The series began in China, where he was invited to work in a studio in Beijing.  Wiley had his African-American models assume poses from Chinese communist propaganda posters.  He says the models and the original people in the posters seemed to share the same characteristics of false hope through their smiles.

“The idea is more than a painting on a wall; this painting is a social wall,” Wiley said.  “I wanted to capture that social history.”

Wiley then took his World Stage, well, around the world.  From Tunisia to Senegal to India to Brazil, Wiley has captured the contemporary black male experience like never done before.  He recalled his time in Israel setting up shoots in the back of Tel Aviv night clubs and asking for drunken models.  Many of the Israeli portraits are of Ethiopians and native-born Jews and Arab Israelis.  Wiley says the experience opened his eyes up in many ways about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  One frame of a painting of an Ethiopian poser says “Can We All Just Get Along” in Hebrew, referring to the Rodney King beating incident.

In Rio de Janeiro, the model interaction was much more challenging, as he had to travel through the favelas with a camera crew and security guards with AK-47s.  He did one shoot at a woman’s home when word got out that an American was paying a lot of money for models, and a queue of people suddenly showed up at the house.   In other countries he has visited, Wiley found many people to be reluctant or even hostile towards a camera crew coming into their area.

“Often times it’s hard to get models, but sometimes there are people who want to be discovered,” Wiley said.  “There are people who are like ‘of course you found me.’”

Nowadays, Wiley doesn’t have a hard time getting models.  He has been commissioned in recent years to produce paintings for the World Cup and Michael Jackson.  Usually when he hosts opening receptions for his work, Wiley invites his models back to view the final products.  Many of them love the work; in fact, some of the models use their portraits on social media profiles.

Wiley’s work has finally come full circle.

“I am always wondering if there is a social good in this work,” he said.  “I meet young artists around the world who now feel it’s possible to be a part of this world.”

Zadie Smith: Life After

British author Zadie Smith became an instant literary success upon the publication of her first book White Teeth in 2000.  The novel is a semi-autobiographical tale about living in London’s new multicultural landscape.  Many of her subsequent books including her latest work NW examine the intersection of race, class and identity.  In the 13 years since White Teeth’s publication, racial politics and the publishing world have evolved tremendously.  Recently, she came to Boston to discuss life in Obama’s America and why writing online is the new normal.

Smith has been a tenured creative writing professor at New York University for the last three years.  It was announced last year that her third book On Beauty will be adapted into a film and the BBC film adaptation of White Teeth has finally been put out on DVD and online streaming formats.  The Internet and media have made seismic shifts in the way the written word is shared with readers.

Like many of her contemporaries, Smith contemplates why she should continue to write in the digital age.  Writers not only have to contend with book reviewers at major newspapers and magazines, but also with social media critics, as well as have to fight copyright infringement to protect their work online.  She says today there is no difference between fake and real writers, as anyone now can be considered a published writer with the click of a mouse.

“Some might say it is harder to write now than it was years ago,” Smith said.  “How will writers be paid online? I have no idea.”

Maybe a culture tax she suggested.

However, she also says that the Web can be a great place for writers too.  She spends a lot of time reading blogs, and not just literary blogs, but a lot of the “trashy blogs” the rest of us read.  Writing online has also created a new intimacy with her readers that has helped inform her writing.  But she is still a fan of the printed, written word.  Smith says she owns over 10,000 books by authors ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Zora Neale Hurston to Jean-Paul Sartre.  While many of the books are used as teaching aides, she also enjoys casual reading.

Smith never expected to become a writer, but has been an avid reader since she was a child.  She seriously considered becoming an actress at one point, but writing eventually became her true calling while attending Cambridge.  The only real writing training she had came from reading other books and having her work critiqued by her classmates.  Smith only wrote three and a half essays while in university, but those essays became the impetus for White Teeth.

While a great deal of that book came out of many hours of research at libraries, White Teeth is based on many aspects of her own life.  Born in North London to a black Jamaican mother and white British father, identity politics is part of her everyday life.

Smith said before a crowd Wednesday night at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that she has many identities including being a liberal, feminist, black woman and British.

She also identifies with President Barack Obama’s multicultural background and his gift of mimicry.  Smith wrote this about Obama in 2008:

“Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson, who on a starry night on safari says credibly British things like: ‘I believe that’s the Milky Way.’ This new president doesn’t just speak for his people. He can speak them.”

Smith says that she didn’t watch Obama’s second inauguration, as she doesn’t own a television and she is not into the “pomp and circumstance” of such occasions.  But she was pleased Obama mentioned climate change in his inaugural speech, since she lives at the tip of Manhattan – ground zero for Hurricane Sandy.

As for her other identity as a writer, she will continue to do that, even as the Internet reinvents content distribution.

“Why I write? Because I am a writer,” she said.