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]