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How Diversity in Computer Programming Will Benefit Everyone

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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

"Would you ever think I was a computer programmer?"

Lilibeth Perez stands in the front of the gymnasium holding a microphone. She is addressing the crowd assembled for the TedxYouth event at The School at Columbia University. "Imagine a computer programmer," she says. "You probably thought of a male, Caucasian, in his thirties, poor social skills, maybe poorly dressed. Would you ever think that I was a computer programmer?" She looks down at herself -- a 17 year old Latina from Spanish Harlem wearing a polka dot shirt, skirt and, tights. "I mean, I think I'm pretty good at dressing myself."

The stereotypes Lilibeth describes are, at least in some ways, statistically accurate. Only 19 percent of students enrolled in AP computer science classes in 2012 were female, and only 12 percent were students of color.

There are so many obstacles for students like Lilibeth to learn computer science. Only 1 in 10 US high schools teaches computer science, and while students in wealthy districts might have the opportunity to take a computer science course, students from low-income schools never do. If computing is taught at all, it tends only to be computer literacy -- necessary but basic skills like word processing.

Lilibeth takes pride in breaking the stereotype. "Not only am I a computer programmer, skilled in Math and science," she says, "I am also athletic, creative, and a skilled writer." She had the opportunity to learn programming by enrolling in classes provided by ScriptEd.

ScriptEd is a start up non-profit that provides computer programming classes in low-income schools. The classes are taught by professional programmers; these individuals provide both mentorship and the most up-to-date information for students. With ScriptEd, Lilibeth has learned HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Over the summer she taught herself Ruby and was placed in a full time paid internship programming at Contently. Currently she is learning Python.

Many ScriptEd students say that if they had never enrolled in the program, they would never have had the opportunity to learn how to code.

This is obviously unjust, especially considering the rich opportunities available to individuals with computer science degrees. While the average salary for a computer programmer in 2012 was $92,790 a year, the average salary for a software engineer at Google was even higher, at $127,143. Over 122,000 computer-programming jobs are being added annually, however American institutions award fewer than 60,000 computer science degrees each year.

Yet perhaps most important, even more so than financial incentives, is the power of knowing how to program. As Douglass Rushkoff writes in his book, Program or be Programmed, the creators of technology hold our futures in their code. Existing technology defines what we can do and how we interact -- one only has to note how Twitter, Facebook, and Buzzfeed have shaped how we consume and interact with news. New technologies define the parameters -- so to speak -- of everything.

Software developers create technology that matches their experience. We have endless iterations of technological solutions for the problems faced by the predominately white, wealthy, male elite -- in San Francisco, an individual with an iPhone and disposable income never has to wait for a cab, thanks to the proliferation of companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. However, the public transportation that serves the rest of the Bay Area remains notoriously unreliable.

Whether or not one believes that everyone can be a programmer, the fact remains that 90 percent of our high school students never even have the opportunity to learn, and a wildly disproportionate number of these students are female and Hispanic or African American. This extreme lack of diversity is not only unjust; it stagnates innovation.

By teaching all students computer science, we will build a future in which our technology creators are fueled by a diversity of experience and thought. This will result in powerful innovations that benefit a whole range of communities.

"Knowing how to code means that I can make a difference in my world in a way I never thought possible," says ScriptEd alumnus Earl Clifton. "I would never have learned that this was even a career option if I hadn't found ScriptEd."

Organizations like ScriptEd give students the resources, mentorship, and skills necessary to take control of their futures and become creators of technology.

We need to give every student the chance to become a programmer. Doing so will not only provide pathways to opportunity for underprivileged communities, it will build a diverse body of computer programmers who will create technology that will truly benefit everyone.

Lilibeth, who is graduating this year, plans to double major in computer science and women's studies. She is the first of her family to graduate from high school, let alone graduate from college. "I want to make sure that children can learn what they want, in spite of stereotypes," she says. Just think of what she might create.

December 9-15 is Computer Science Education Week. On December 11, ScriptEd will host an Hour of Code event at Harlem Village Academies High School in New York City. On December 14, ScriptEd's students will put their programming skills to the test in ScriptEd's December Hackathon.

To learn more, go to ScriptEd.org.