On Making Computer Science an Obvious Career Choice for Black Women and Girls: An Interview With Dr. Allison Scott

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Dr. Allison Scott, chief research officer for the Kapor Center based in Oakland, California.  The Kapor Center is a family of organizations working to remove barriers to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and tech careers for underrepresented people of color.  Scott is passionate about getting more Black women and girls into careers in technology for two reasons.  First, technology is ubiquitous!  It powers everything we do and exists across all types of jobs.  Second, according to new research, “computing occupations are among the most economically lucrative and fastest-growing jobs” in the U.S.

Jocelyn: Allison, it’s wonderful to meet you.  I want to dive into this discussion of the importance of technology but first, you’re a chief research officer. What does that mean and what do you do?

Allison: Haha!  Good question.  I’m a social science researcher by training and I have a passion for education and issues of educational equity.  I’m keenly interested in the role of education in providing access to economic opportunity, especially for underrepresented groups.

I spend my days looking at data and determining how to use data to tell important stories and inspire action and change.  We’re learning a lot about what it takes to increase representation for girls and women of color in computer science.

Jocelyn: Why education and technology?

Allison: Part of my interest is personal. I had very different experiences while attending both very well-resourced and under-resourced, low-performing schools.  My own educational experience informed my curiosity and passion to ensure all students have access to a quality education.

Jocelyn: I see that you attended Hampton for your undergraduate studies and University of California at Berkeley for your Ph.D. 

Allison: That’s right.  Hampton was an amazing and completely transformative experience for me. They have small class sizes. There are a plethora of role models. The curriculum is rigorous and I was extremely well-prepared for grad school. And it was at Hampton where I got to meet Black folks from all walks of life, many of whom remain my friends to this day.

It was also one of my Hampton professors, Dr. Reginald Jones, that first planted the seed of encouragement for me to get a Ph.D. I’m a big evangelist for HBCUs!

Jocelyn:  Tell us about your research.  What are you working on now?

Allison: There are two initiatives that I’m excited about.  First, we’re conducting a project to look at educational equity in computer science in California.  We’re focused on high schools, where access to computer science (CS) courses is a critical barrier for Black students and low-income students.  For example, nearly 60 percent of high schools have no computer courses at all.  And the schools attended by low-income students and students of color are least likely to have any computer science courses.

Jocelyn: That’s astonishing.

Allison: If no computer science courses are available at your school, your opportunity to have exposure to CS before college greatly diminishes. This is problematic because we know that taking AP courses in high school is one of the best predictors of majoring in computer science in college.

The reality is that we’re not setting up our girls for success.  Only 2 percent of AP Computer Science course takers are Black girls.

Jocelyn: Ugh. What can we do about it?

Allison: We’re working hard to use this data to reform policy and inspire local change, and there is a lot of work to do.  We need to increase course offerings, increase teacher preparation, allocate funding to computer science education, and more.

Jocelyn: I love that you see it as a system vs. personal problem.  Do you think these dismal outcomes are a result of stereotypes as well? For example, do we need to change the images and narratives about who can be a computer scientist?

Allison: Yes!  The second project I’m working on is called Women of Color in Computing Research Collaborative.  Our goal is to see more Black and Brown women complete computing degrees and enter computing careers.  We have an amazing advisory board of women of color in technology.  We are determining the interventions needed to increase access and representation of women like us in these fields.  We’ve talked a lot about the importance of role models.  Girls need to see folks in computer science who look like them.  At a very basic level, if you don’t know anyone who is a computer scientist, and have never seen a computer programmer who looked like you, why would you aspire to be one?

Jocelyn: Amen!  This is one of our goals at BlackHer.  To elevate and showcase amazing Black women (like you!) who are pursuing diverse careers.  It’s so important for us to see each other in diverse industries and positions of power.

Allison: At the WOC in Computing Research Collaborative, we’re also working to figure out how to profile more women and get information about pathways into these careers into the hands of women of color. We also want to be sure that we translate what we’re learning and share it widely so that the research doesn’t exist in an echo chamber or just sit on a shelf, but directly informs action at the school and industry level.

Jocelyn: I love it!  I should have asked you this first but tell us why Black women should be or may be interested in a degree in computer science?  Why technology?

Allison: It’s a critical question.  In addition to the fact that computing jobs pay higher wages (tech jobs are $70K higher than the median wage in the Bay Area), securing a job in tech can be a vehicle to help Black women build wealth.

For example, in 2017, 37 tech companies went public and collectively generated $9.9B in revenue.  Being an investor, a founder or an employee in a tech company provides access to potential capital through stock options, which create instant wealth after an IPO. However, fewer than 1% of women of color are tech founders, investors or employees in these companies. This means that we are missing out on huge wealth-building opportunities.

Jocelyn: I’m glad you brought up wealth.  We talk about this all the time at BlackHer and people are always shocked to hear it.  But according to the Asset Funders Network, single Black women have a median wealth of $200.  And the numbers are just as bad for Latinas. It sounds like gaining more access to jobs in tech and frankly, starting our own tech companies could be one path to prosperity.

Allison: Exactly.  And it starts with getting more girls into computer science courses, degrees, and tech careers, launching our own businesses, and investing in technology.

Jocelyn: So, what should BlackHer readers do next? 

Allison: First, folks can check out our new data brief from Women of Color in Computing Research Collaborative.  It provides stark data on how few girls and women of color are participating in computing.

Second, all parents should learn more about computer science offerings at their girls’ schools.  And if there are no courses, they should advocate for them now.  Also, SMASH, Black Girls Code, and Hidden Genius Project are great programs providing computing exposure and education to students of color!

Third, Afrotech and BlackComputeHER provide community, networks, and conferences for Black tech professionals.

Finally, we should all be approaching our careers as lifelong learners. The future jobs in technology haven’t been created or envisioned yet. We can get ahead of the curve by taking continuing education courses in topics and areas where tech companies need skilled workers. Many courses exist online, through bootcamps, apprenticeship programs, or local colleges.  Finally, Black women shouldn’t be afraid to apply to tech jobs and to start engaging with networks of tech professionals in their city.  Companies say they want more diverse talent, so let’s let them know we are here!

Jocelyn: I think a lot of Black women (including me!) are “doing tech,” but we just don’t call it that.  That’s why it is intimidating.

Allison: That’s right!  Think about Black Twitter.  Instagram-based businesses. We are using technology in innovative and creative (and potentially lucrative!) ways all the time. People don’t realize that there are people who get paid not only to code, but also to develop social media plans, and marketing and product strategies. So many of us are digital natives, and so many more of us can be creating technology!

Jocelyn: Allison, who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

Allison: There are so many, but I’d have to say Anita Hill and Michelle Obama.  They are such amazing role models.  There is something so important and inspiring about seeing the leadership of these amazing, intelligent, beautiful Black women.

Jocelyn: Let me ask you the Miracle Question.  You go to sleep tonight, and you wake up and it’s December 2019 and the miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Allison: Black women are leading technology companies whose products are changing the world.

Jocelyn: Amen!





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