Who gets to code our future?

OPINION: When it comes to encouraging women and people of colour to work as coders, training programs and networking events merely focus on the symptoms rather than the deeper, less comfortable root causes of tech’s diversity problem
By Saadia Muzaffar - Published on November 7, 2016
a woman working on a computer
Saadia Muzaffar argues that when it comes to encouraging girls and women to pursue STEM jobs, root causes about the viability of that type of career need to be addressed. (Michael Lehan/TVO)

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It’s October 2016, and I’m in a room abuzz with representatives from 21 world economies that are a study in contrasts , from behemoths like China to small island nations like Papua New Guinea. I’m representing Canada at the Education Ministerial Meetings for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Lima, Peru, where the forum is hosting some of its first organized programs and panels on women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

There’s a lot of talk in the room about how there aren’t enough women in STEM fields. In Canada, this is particularly true. While more women today are graduating with STEM degrees, the number of women actually employed in these fields barely budged in three decades: 20 per cent in 1987 and 22 per cent in 2011. In math and computer sciences specifically, women are still also paid almost 10 per cent less, on average, than their male counterparts.

Previous speakers at the conference emphasized how we can encourage more girls to get interested in coding and become creators instead of just consumers of technology.

My panel, tasked with talking about addressing the challenge of keeping girls and women in STEM fields, in both education and the workplace, is introduced by a senior representative of a global tech company you’ve likely heard of. He speaks at length about investing in tracking data to to help us understand why diversity is so low, and why diversifying our companies is great for business. He makes recommendations for programs that would produce a future full of shiny, happy coders of all kinds. They all sound like great ideas.

But this is trying to solve the wrong problem. All of us in that room, hailing from corporate social responsibility programs and human resource departments, are focusing on symptoms, and we’re choosing to do that because it’s easier than digging to unearth the problem’s uncomfortable roots.

I am reminded of home in Toronto, and a provincial government dragging its feet to introduce computer programming as a basic part of the school curriculm. And while this inaction needs to be challenged, adding to curriculum without addressing specific inequity in STEM education and workplaces would similarly focus on symptoms at the expense of causes.

So back at the forum, I check the microphone and begin by sharing my story of being a little girl who grew up convinced she was going to be an engineer and an entrepreneur, just like her dad. A girl who somehow, between the ages of nine and 12, changed her mind — not because she’d lost her love for those endeavours, but because she got a million and one signals telling her she did not belong in a STEM field.

My affinity for technology never went away, though, and it took me many years to make my way back to my original passion. What I found upon my return was that someone like me  —  a woman of colour and an immigrant, even in a multicultural country like Canada —  was still insidiously unwelcome in tech.

It turns out those signals that tell women and people of colour they’re not welcome in this field don’t stop at childhood. Look, for example, at how little funding women and racial minority entrepreneurs get from venture capitalists, or how apathetic companies have shown themselves to be about sexual harassment in the workplace or regarding user abuse on the platforms they have built, such as Twitter. It’s underscored by women being underpaid, perpetually questioned about their credibility, and exhausted out of the workforce in fewer than 10 years from the start of their careers, and the fact that this outcome is even more likely and common when you factor in race, varying physical and mental abilities, and all the ways they can overlap with gender.

I asked for all of us in that room to take a critical look at how we were approaching the situation, to consider that by focusing on training programs and networking events, we were saddling people on the margins with the burden of “fixing” themselves in order to diversify our talent pools.

I suggested that we stop pretending that the systemic exclusion of certain types of people in a burgeoning sector is not about maintaining power and control, and that instead of focusing on absence — on the lack of women and people of colour — we acknowledge how white, how male and how able-bodied our workplaces and our boardrooms are. I asked that we task those who have the privilege of unhindered access to opportunities in this field to consider stepping back and relinquishing space to those who are missing at the table.

We need to address our teachers, who overwhelmingly expect less from girls when it comes to STEM subjects; our general reluctance to engage with race as one of the largest determinants of student disengagement; the ways our education system is failing queer youth; and overhaul our support for varying physical and mental abilities needs.

We cannot settle for anything less than a future that is accessible, equitable and truly meritocratic. That requires that we first address the issues that make the playing field in this industry so uneven.

Saadia Muzaffar is a media advocate for intersectional diversity in STEM fields, the founder of TechGirls Canada and senior director of marketing at AudienceView

 

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