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.
Six years ago, my parents tried to convince me to major in Computer Science. After Instagram sold for $1 billion last year, I vowed to always take their advice.
Money-hungry inclinations aside, I can't think of a reason why I shouldn't have heeded to their advice. I have always been interested in technology. I hurriedly set up new computers with the giddiness of a child unraveling a Christmas gift, and was the first to take them apart if there were any issues (although, to be fair, this often resulted in more problems than solutions). In high school, I took advanced courses in physics and was the only minority student at my all-girls boarding school, to take the highest level of math as part of the International Baccalaureate program. Though my childhood had been filled with dreams of being blasted off into space and even with an older sister who is a petroleum engineer, I ultimately decided not to focus on a career in science. I wonder if things would have been different had I been part of 'Black Girls Code'.
Black Girls Code (BCG) is a non-profit program based in San Francisco, with operations across the United States and international spin-off program in South Africa. They provide classes in computer programming, mobile app development, robotics and other STEM-related fields for girls aged 7-17, lighting a fire that will hopefully prepare them for formidable careers in an increasingly tech-centric world. Its founder, Kimberly Bryant comes from a biotech engineering background. Recently named one of Whitehouse's Champions for Change, her mandate, since launching BCG in 2011 with only 12 girls, has been to build girls' self-confidence, in addition to an appreciation for science and technology-related subjects.
For my part, the decision to not pursue a degree or career in science was not so much the result of lack of encouragement or limited choices, as too much encouragement and choice. I was lucky to have parents to saw the value in being well-rounded; extracurricular endeavors were considered just as important as academic. One summer, I was taking art classes from a neighbor, the next I was enrolled in a popular computer science program in Accra called NIIT (To be fair, both parents worked extremely hard, and I think they just wanted to keep us busy). I had the opportunity to delve into different fields that not only gave me a clearer idea of what I would be good at, but more importantly what I could pursue with passion and purpose.
However younger children today are growing up in different world: One where they know technology will play a formidable part regardless of the industry they work in. Initiatives like the #HourOfCode held earlier this week, consistently drill the message that the world belongs to the technologically savvy and digitally inclined. As a former Economics major, currently working in Digital Marketing, I myself have started to learn how to code via CodeAcademy. It's one of the many free or practically free coding resources also available via companies like CodeSchool and Treehouse.
But it's more than that: Younger generations are also learning that programming is a way for them to create their own worlds. They are being encouraged to test the limits of experimentation and entrepreneurial risk-taking based on anecdotal successes of Zuckerbergs and Spiegels. However, the lack of minority participants is what has prompted organizations like BCG. "I also recall, as I pursued my studies, feeling culturally isolated: few of my classmates looked like me. While we shared similar aspirations and many good times, there's much to be said for making any challenging journey with people of the same cultural background," says Bryant.
Beyond getting more minorities to opt for careers in tech, there is also the issue of ensuring they will gain a fair wage. The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently published a report that shows a stubborn gap between earners in various industries, based on race. Interestingly, this is said to be not so much a result of prejudice, as it is a result of social interactions. Tech hubs like Silicon Valley are an example of the many industrial hubs that dictate the likelihood of a person finding a job of interest depending on where they live. While job settings themselves are not segregated, the underlying social strata often is. Minority employees are therefore less likely to find out about more key information and opportunities for advancement that would otherwise propel their careers to the next level and close the wage gap.
As NBER researcher Elizabeth Ananat recently explained to NPR:
"Say there are 1,000 black engineers in Silicon Valley, compared to 20 in Topeka, and there are 10,000 total engineers in Silicon Valley, compared to 500 in Topeka. Then blacks make up 10 percent of engineers in Silicon Valley, compared to 4 percent in Topeka. A black engineer in Silicon Valley has 980 more black engineers to get spillovers from than does a black engineer in Topeka. Meanwhile, a white engineer in Silicon Valley has 8,500 more white engineers to benefit from than a white engineer in Topeka. Thus, while both white and black engineers' wages will be higher in Silicon Valley than in Topeka, the white engineer's wages will increase more than the black engineer's do -- in effect, the white engineer is living in a much bigger city (of engineers) than the black engineer is, if only people within one's own race matter for urban spillovers."
If this is the case, should young black girls be more focused on their own personal trajectories rather than binding together with others who look like them, for the betterment of all? BCG's founder would argue that that's not the point. The organization aims to tackle the issue the other way round -- by increasing the number of black women in the tech space to begin with.