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Can Schools Solve The Tech Industry's Pipeline Problem?

When Google went public with data about the diversity of its workforce, it fueled the ongoing conversation about diversity in the technology industry.
Virginia Mayo
When Google went public with data about the diversity of its workforce, it fueled the ongoing conversation about diversity in the technology industry.

It's been only a couple of weeks since Google released the diversity numbers on its workforce, and there's been a lot of talk since then about why the tech giant and others in the industry don't really reflect the American population as a whole.

A well-written piece today in Mother Jones offers some provocative thoughts on what can be done about it — and schools could play a big role.

So, to catch up, Google last month released a breakdown of its 46,000-member global workforce that put some data behind stereotypes about the tech giant. And turns out, that stereotype is largely true: Google's workforce is heavily white and male.

Thirty percent of Google's employees worldwide are women, according to the figures released in May, and just 17 percent of technical staffers are female.

Racially and ethnically, Google's U.S.-based staff is 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent African-American.

So, how does that stack up against the U.S. workforce as a whole? Here are the comparable figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor:

  • 47 percent of U.S. workers are women,
  • 80 percent are white,
  • 12 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian. (The numbers for Hispanics are more complicated, because people of Hispanic ethnicity may be of any race.)
  • Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations suggested in a blog post that there are a slew of reasons why Google and other tech companies struggle to reflect the demographics of the country:

    "There are lots of reasons why technology companies like Google struggle to recruit and retain women and minorities. For example, women earn roughly 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics each make up under 10 percent of U.S. college grads and each collect fewer than 10 percent of degrees in CS majors. So we've invested a lot of time and energy in education."

    Google isn't the only tech company facing this challenge, and it certainly isn't the only one to lay the blame, at least in part, on a "pipeline problem." The argument is that companies can only hire the people who apply for jobs, and in tech, those people tend to be male and white.

    Today in the Mother Jones piece, Tasneem Raja suggests that part of the solution might be quite simple: start introducing coding and computer skills to children early.

    "Exposing today's third-graders to a dose of code may mean that at 30 they retain enough to ask the right questions of a programmer, working in a language they've never seen on a project they could never have imagined," Raja writes.

    Raja, an editor at the publication, also suggests changing the message on STEM, so that girls will embrace science, technology, engineering and math rather than be repelled.

    "Research shows that girls tend to pull away from STEM subjects—including computer science—around middle school, while rates of boys in these classes stay steady."

    Raja cited evidence that tweaking the way computer science is introduced can make a difference:

    "A 2009 study tested various messages about computer science with college-bound teens. It found that explaining how programming skills can be used to 'do good' — connect with one's community, make a difference on big social problems like pollution and health care — reverberated strongly with girls. Far less successful were messages about getting a good job or being 'in the driver's seat' of technological innovation — i.e., the dominant cultural narratives about why anyone would learn to code."

    Sure, there's an argument that it's critical for the workforce of the country's leading technology companies to reflect, well, the demographics of the country. But as Raja points out, it's also just good for the corporate bottom line.

    "It was a little more than a century ago that literacy became universal in Western Europe and the United States. If computational skills are on the same trajectory, how much are we hurting our economy—and our democracy—by not moving faster to make them universal?"

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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