The Geek-Boy Irony Behind Mark Zuckerberg’s Tech Lobby

Citing a critical shortage, Silicon Valley heavyweights have been lobbying for immigration reform that will allow high-tech firms to hire more workers under H-1B visas. How is this possible, given our glut of job-seeking college grads? One fundamental problem is the narrowness of the demographic that the high-tech sector draws from—especially the lack of women and minorities.

It is striking to see the efforts of Mark Zuckerberg and his other lobbying friends juxtaposed with the grim job market that even many college graduates are facing today. Today's young people are the most educated generation ever with the highest levels of college attainment this country has ever seen. Why is it then that hot Silicon Valley corporations are struggling to fill attractive jobs?

Code.org, the high-profile industry effort to push for more computer science and programming in K-12 education, correctly highlights the growing need for programmers and the dearth of educational opportunities to learn to code. But the reasons for the high-tech talent gap run deeper than a simple lack of curricular offerings.

The statistics on the code.org site are silent as to issues of diversity and equity, and fail to point out that coders are overwhelmingly white, Asian, and male. If almost all non-Asian minorities and women feel that coding is not for them, we have reduced our potential pool of high-tech talent to a fraction of the population.

Despite a deserved reputation for progressiveness, the tech sector is highly exclusionary to those who don't fit the geek stereotype—and this tendency is getting worse, especially in Silicon Valley. You might have heard, based on 2011 numbers, that only 25% of the U.S. high-tech workforce is female, and the percentages have been in steady decline since the '90s. The numbers for minority women are even more dismal. Hispanic women represent 1% of the high-tech workforce, and African-American women don't fare much better, at 3%. The better the jobs, the lower the proportions are of women and non-Asian minorities. Despite the diversity of the population of the region, Silicon Valley, which boasts the highest salaries among tech regions, fares much worse than the national numbers.

Even without explicit discrimination, we see women and non-Asian minorities absent from even entry-level tech jobs. Harper Reed, the CTO of the Obama campaign platform for his 2012 re-election, had both a mandate and a strong personal commitment to hire Black, Latino, and women coders. Despite his best efforts, he was not able to fill his targets. "The campaign needed to represent America, and we weren’t able to do that within the engineering team," he said at the time. "I was able to talk to huge organizations that were involved in getting women and non-Asian minorities into technology, and they weren’t able to help us. It was incredibly frustrating." The irony is both huge and unmistakable: A geek culture that purports to embrace values of diversity and inclusiveness has not done enough to evangelize to women and non-Asian minorities. Even if efforts like code.org and aggressive recruitment by insiders like Harper Reed are successful, it is unlikely we will see coding expand beyond White and Asian geek boy culture without a concerted effort to address issues of diversity and equity head on.

For two decades, I have studied the unique characteristics of geek learning. Unlike learning in more established fields, geek learning is highly dependent on informal, problem-driven, and peer-to-peer social learning. Geeks often have a hostile relationship to formal education. Rather than sit through a pre-programmed curriculum with problems and solutions laid out in advance, geeks like to tinker and hack to solve new problems and innovate. While classes can be a source of important practicums and skill development, true success in the geek world is not conferred through seat time and formal credentials but by a track record of identifying and solving interesting new problems in new ways.

My 12-year-old son is half White and half Asian growing up in a household with both parents involved in high-tech research. He will not have an opportunity to take a single coding class in school, and yet he is already a competent Minecraft hacker, loves building things in Maya, and has done programming experiments in Scratch and basic. His coding and hacking interests have grown mostly through an iron-clad cohort of geek and gamer friends. Unlike his diverse friendships formed through athletics and other interests, all of his geek friends are White boys, with parents who are entrepreneurs or creative professionals.

Recruitment into the life of a coder happens well before kids walk into the classroom. The peer groups that young geeks form are as critical to their learning and development as tech experts. Kids become coders because they are friends with other coders or are born into coder families, which is why the networks can become exclusionary even when there is no explicit racism and sexism involved. It’s about cultural identity and social networks as much as it’s about school offerings or career opportunities. Kids need to play and tinker with computers, have friends who hack and code together, and tackle challenging and new problems that are part of their everyday lives and relationships.

We know that the more diverse the ecosystem of talent, the more innovative are the solutions that result. If we really care about the talent gap in high tech, innovation, and entrepreneurism, we need to do more than look overseas, or push classes and school requirements at kids. We need to build a sense of relevance and social connection into what it means to be a coder for a wide diversity of kids. Groups such as Black Girls Code, Mozilla’s Webmaker Mentors, Urban TxT, a growing network of makerspaces in diverse communities, and the vibrant community of young Scratch programmers point to ways in which girls, and Black and Latino kids can be recruited into coding culture and social networks. The talent is there to be developed if we can diversify our imagination of who belongs to the coding inner circle, and how we might invite them to join.

Mimi Ito is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at the University of California, Irvine.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leth-Olsen]

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  • sf_jeff

    "Despite a deserved reputation for progressiveness, the tech sector is highly exclusionary to those who don't fit the geek stereotype--and this tendency is getting worse, especially in Silicon Valley. "

    My experience was the opposite.  I worked in a high tech company that hired a lot of people and something like 10% of applicants and 20% of hires were female.  I interpreted this as inclusionary, not exclusionary.

  • Devin Reynolds

    As a 25 year old, unemployed college graduate, I'm thrilled to have learned about the exciting opportunities, and extraordinary demand for workers in tech industries, AFTER a primary and secondary education that featured extremely limited exposure to computer programming and earning a useless political science degree. So... score 1 for bad career advice and parents who waited until I was a sophomore in high school to get a computer (I had started asking for one in about 3rd grade, both my parent's are pretty much oblivious to technology; my dad still refuses to carry a cell phone, and my mom still can't type). Here's an idea: just tell kids they can be making 90 grand a year straight out of college... and tell them WHEN THEY'RE 12! You'd be amazed at how quickly that industry's labor pool would fill up.

  • Kash Dymé

    Well the college rate (and it's climbing) is 65% female to 35% male at American Universities.  This gender gap is staggering.  And the only field that females do not dominate now is computer science.  It's the only field left that males have managed to hang on to. 

    So yeah sure go for it take it, it's all yours for the taking.  You might also notice there are no males marrying anymore either. But that's another story.

  • Bob

    My experiences run counter to your experiences so I think I should share, this maybe an apples to oranges though.

    I am a Latino male who passes for White amongst Whites and I started programming and tinkering in 1984 at the age of 13.  The geek friends came after as I was lucky enough to have someone else within half a mile my age who also had a computer and shared my interests.  I don't know about current high school programming classes but of the 4 I took in high school were gender diverse but not racially diverse or class diverse. Of course at the time I didn't understand why as I had been an expatriate for the 10 of my 13  years.

    As a Freshmen in college I saw the same thing repeated, but the difference vs high school was the social isolation the out group felt drove them from the programs as they had no backup social group.  I didn't understand why my friends basically ignored people who shared our interests almost exactly but who had different skin color or were poorer, obviously after living in the US with a critical eye rather then through the lenses of a military brat, it make perfect sense. 

    I imagine this happening at all the colleges around the nation at that time and I understand why its such a boys culture.

  • Diginess

    How many coming in with H1Bs have doctorates?  That would explain trying to get immigrants, if you can pull in a steady stream of engineers with doctorates.

  • Mary

    I learned to write code while earning my MS in chemistry.   I have been repeatedly told that I am not qualified for any job in computer science.  When I later enrolled in a computer science program the hostility to non-Asian women made it impossible to complete the program.  A foreign grad student teaching a course told me he was going to fail me because women have no right  to take jobs that belong to men.  The chair of the CS department told me I needed to learn to respect his cultural right to fail me for being female.  American women and African-American students were routinely denied the use of computers other students were allowed to use. 

  • Bob

    The ability to code an application and ability to create code that maximizes ROI may appear to be the same, but is it not. 

    Self taught coders start at a disadvantage to CS graduates, but a CS degree is no guarantee they have the ability to move past the coder stage and become a Software Engineer in discipline rather then in name only.

    I work with PhDs in a hard science and they can code, but they also spend a lot longer then I would to fix their bugs, deal with environment changes, and try to figure out how to recode their apps to add this new feature they need.  Things that would take me hours even 10 years ago take them days and days.

  • sf_jeff

    In their defense, things that would take me hours in an environment I am used to can take me days in a new programming language or toolset.

  • Daniel Kehoe

    "Geek learning is highly dependent on informal, problem-driven, and peer-to-peer social learning." Yes, but it wouldn't need to be if school curricula identified it as important. Kind of like how people learned about sex before communities decided sex education might be beneficial.

  • Marie Bjerede

    I'm a former high tech exec & spent most of my career hiring great software talent.  I of course ran into these same issues - we received far fewer resumes from women than men.  Further, the men tended to be geeky hobbyists who went home and hacked code for fun until all hours.  The women?  not so much - their relationship to software (generally) was more pragmatic than passionate and they were more likely to have family obligations after work.

    I'm also mom to a 13yo boy who is learning web design and object oriented programming - he recently coded up a web site for his 9yo sister using html & css - something my daughter would not be likely to do for fun.


    My daughter is playing around with C code.  She is a Maker and sews fashions with soft circuits using the LilyPad Arduino.  Recently she has started programming the lilypad using Modkit, software based on Scratch.  (That code is still somewhat limited so we need to move it to the Arduino dev environment for final touches.)

    My hope is that by pursuing her own interests, which look different from those of many young geek boys, she will be able to develop her own hobbyist approach to coding as well as a community - and the Maker community is a fabulous place to plug in.

    Maybe these kinds of communities will grow to offer ways of participating in high tech that is just as deep and valid, but somehow more inviting to non-geek-boy personalities.

  • Ellie K

    Marie, I am familiar with home sewing fashions using soft circuits! I've never done it, only read about it, seen video demo's, photos. Everything in your comment, and the article, resonated. 

    Another disturbing aspect of programming work culture is that it is more exclusionary to women and not-Asian minorities than the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics were, even thirty years ago. The trend seems Western, maybe U.S.-specific. In countries where women aren't accorded comparable social status as men- Pakistan, Iran, India, Korea- there is more acceptance of, and prevalence of women who code. I've watched Drupal (open source CMS) instructional videos from Serbia and Hungary, dubbed into English, and noted that there were women attendees, and lecturers too!

    I think about this often. The social credo in IT is specific and strict. Media is additionally unhelpful. Women who code are portrayed with abrasive personalities, often unattractive or overweight, always wearing heavy, black-framed eyeglasses. That is an awfully negative role model for girls and young women! It is the exception, not the rule. I hope your daughter won't be put off, due to such. (Look how much attention this fine Fast Co. post received: Effectively, nil, though maybe more will follow).

    Final observation: Network and data security, including cryptography, are the most hospitable sub-domains of software-driven technology for women. I don't know why, but it is true to my own experience. Other evidence is merely anecdotal: The only Latino, white, mixed-race or black women who are experienced programmers (and are happy with their careers!) that I know, or know of, do infosec related work. They are not in academia, but are employed by a variety of private and public sector companies. 

    May your daughter have the very best of luck in her future endeavors.