Information technology, including cybersecurity, is a career that forecasts tremendous growth for high-paying jobs well into the future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts technology jobs will grow by 22 percent from 2020 to 2030. Most of these 2.1 million jobs will go unfilled, and a significant gap remains between available jobs and the people trained to fill those jobs. Black women can fill this gap. However, there’s a dearth of Black women in the technology industry.
The growth of Black women in the field of information technology has been slow to stagnant for many years. Women make up 26 percent of employees in the nation’s IT workforce, whereas African American women make up only 3 percent. It is not realistic to aim for proportional representation based on race. Some fields attract certain types of people and genders, and they may be more successful than others in the same field. But, the degree of Black women’s underrepresentation in technology appears to outpace this phenomenon.
Tricia McMahon is a San Diego-based information security specialist, cybersecurity doctoral student, and vice president for the WiCySSD (Women in Cybersecurity San Diego). Explaining her experience before entering the field, she said, “I always wanted to be in IT. But I did not see anyone that looked like me, male or female. But I knew I could do a great job.”
Assumptions and Attitudes
Girls and boys have dreams and aspirations equally when they are young. By the time they are in elementary school, girls receive and internalize negative messages about their ability, intelligence and potential. Contrary to common assumptions, they do not disengage from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects in school; they don’t become engaged in the first place.
Historically, computers were associated with boys more than girls, based on the unfounded belief that girls liked working with computers less than male counterparts. Since people avoid activities traditionally associated with another gender or race, girls may have developed an avoidance of computers, similar to how Black people pass up hiking and skiing since those activities are usually associated with white people.
Late Nigerian anthropologist John Ogbu explained that African Americans avoid science because “like schooling in general, it means acting white. People think of math and science as something white people do.”
Because of other roadblocks and challenges, less positive attitudes about computers and technology develop for all girls in general and African American girls in particular. As a result, they approach technology with less enthusiasm than their white associates. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because without the proper encouragement girls use computers less than boys. Studies have shown the more computer-related experience girls have, the more positive their attitudes toward computers become.
Then there is the embedded lack of opportunity for African Americans. Although many improvements have been made, the historical exclusion of Black people from STEM careers and educational opportunities is still being felt today. The continued existence of these roadblocks multiplies the problem.
Nationally, women are not introduced to technology in a way that keeps them engaged over a long period. According to Girl Scout Research Institute, an encouragement gap exists between white girls and African American and Hispanic girls. Only 38 percent of African American girls reported receiving support and encouragement from STEM teachers, compared to 54 percent of Caucasian girls.
In Neil Postman’s book, The End of Education, he postulates, “…if everything was seen through the lens of ethnicity, then isolation, parochialism, and hostility, not to mention absurdity are the inevitable result.”
The absurdity comes into play through paranoia when African Americans, already burdened with feelings of isolation, believe that their blackness is constantly evaluated in everything they do or say. Even in the most accommodating work environments, these feelings can hinder the ability of African American women to find happiness in the technology workplace.
The lack of African American women in the IT industry results in work environments with little-to-no mentoring by other women of color. Though friendly and cordial, white co-workers don’t always step up to mentor, which also contributes to a feeling of isolation.
Speaking about her entry into an information technology workplace, information systems analyst Sebrena Adkins said, “Once I received my degree, I didn’t have the technical, hands-on experience; everything was educational. I had to apply for an IT position (my undergraduate degree is in networking).”
It took five and a half years before she got her present job. She recalled the job being harder because she did not have current information and had to go over all her notes. In 2006, she said there were no labs to help her keep up her skills and no TryHackme.com, which offers hands-on cyber security training through real-world scenarios.
“This was the biggest challenge I had because I felt I was out there on my own. What I had learned out there five and a half years prior had changed when I got my job. I did not have anyone to say, ‘go through these materials to refresh yourself,’” she added.
She believes an internship program and more mentoring could have made her transition to the IT world smoother. Though she earns a six-figure salary, Adkins admitted, “I am happy with my job, but I am not satisfied. I’m a lifelong learner, so I will continue to improve through training.”
McMahon knows of similar inequities to mentorship. “Talking to some of the women in WiCySSD, many of them (white women) stumble into a cybersecurity role without training or education. Their supervisors give them opportunities, whereas people of color don’t receive those same opportunities. We have to change that,” she shared.
Most Black women in IT work for public—state or federal government—agencies. One reason is likely that many computer firms are government contractors that do not meet federally mandated goals for minority hiring. Unfair hiring practices are still happening, and some of those companies have been cited for affirmative action violations.
The public sector meets hiring goals for minority employees more often than their private sector counterparts. Public sector jobs are more protected by following laws, rules and regulations for equality within their workforce. Though racial and social problems still occur within public agencies, they still outperform the private sector in the number of minority employees and provide a more accommodating work environment.
Lack of diversity holds the industry back. Fresh and new perspectives are needed for growth. Research proves that businesses that are the most creative network with diverse people. Differences in views and experiences help everyone to see the world more flexibly. Teamwork is essential.
For example, a mix of innovators and adaptors is more effective than teams with only one style or people with the same background, outlook and experience. Thousands of Black women can make a positive difference in a company, and thousands of Black women have the potential to move into the middle class with well-paying jobs that last well into the future. Without exposing young Black women to STEM courses and without fully supporting the mentoring of the Black women that are already in the industry, the potential for growth in the technology field will be retarded.
A Call for Change Leaders
All African American women in technology fields are change leaders whether they consider themselves that or not. Young Black girls need to see positive role models in the work environments they chose, and they need to see themselves in these career fields to help them better imagine what opportunities may await them. Active leaders from the ranks of the technology industry matter to all underrepresented groups.
Encouragement goes a long way for young girls. Women leaders in the IT industry must engage a diverse audience, which may help eliminate unconscious bias. Some jobs could give many more people a foothold in the middle class. This gap can be bridged by increasing responsiveness to all intersectional aspects of society, such as race, class, gender and ethnicity.
Educators must ensure that STEM courses are seriously introduced in kindergarten, and the intensity should increase to 12th grade. Computer science must be mandatory for high school graduation. Only three states have enacted compulsory CS classes to graduate from high school. Research has proven that female participation in summer STEM/cybersecurity camps increases their interest in STEM, and this interest grows over time.
The tech industry and educational and governmental agencies need to consider the perspectives and experiences of African American women, whose experiences are often shaped by race and gender, making their identities more layered and much different than the people who occupy most of the positions in the tech community.
Some agencies are building interest and educating the next generation of women of color.
Organizations such as The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT.org), Women Who Code (womenwhocode.com), and Latinas in Tech (latinasintech.org) are organizations that provide resources, leadership, training, and scholarships. Lucy Sanders, CEO of NCWIT, states on its website, “The critical need to increase diversity in computing is driven by businesses and human issues that affect us all, and we stand to benefit from changing or expanding existing norms.”
Recruiting more Black women for the IT industry goes a long way in closing the technology gap. Women of color are an extraordinary untapped resource that would not only help our country meet the critical need for information technology workers but recruiting more Black women would mean that thousands of families will immediately be elevated to the middle class while being equipped with skills that will meet the jobs requirements of the future.
The current shortage of information technology workers is an excellent opportunity for America to build a diverse workforce that more closely matches our country’s current demographics, proportional to race and gender. However, to make a significant impact, STEM courses need to be introduced in preschool and continue throughout high school. While the window of opportunity is open, efforts need to increase to introduce young Black girls to the benefits of a career in information technology.
Planning for her role as a mentor, McMahon concluded, “My long-term goal is to give back to others and train and educate the underrepresented population. Hopefully, things can change where there will be more women of color working in technology. .
Editor’s note: Thomas Holt Russell writes about STEM education and the effects of technology on society. He is currently the director of cyber education for the National Cybersecurity Center headquartered in Colorado Springs.