Skip to main content

Institutions Must Change to Recruit and Retain Women of Color in Tech

It’s Not Just an Issue of Equality, says Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom, second left, delivered a virtual keynote April 7 on the need for a tech workforce representative of women of color, a theme echoed in 2019 testimony before a House panel. | House Science Committee Majority

Computer science and other technical departments, institutions and workplaces must “absorb” the equity and diversity efforts currently led by special programs, individuals and donations into their regular operations, said Shirley Malcom, AAAS’ senior adviser and director of SEA Change, in making her case to a virtual audience.

“You cannot special program your way out of this one,” she said on April 7. “If we are building community, why isn’t there a general sense of community? It’s not just women and minorities [who benefit],” she noted. “First-generation students can’t find their way either.”

In addition to providing equal opportunities and accessing all of society’s talent, she added, we all stand to benefit from the insights of different lived experiences. Women of color, like others from underrepresented backgrounds, including people with disabilities, can see and solve technological problems that make technology itself work better for all of us.

During Malcom’s keynote address at a virtual workshop held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicines’ Committee on Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women of Color in Tech, she noted that the very low numbers of minority women in technical fields are not getting better.

Currently, about 1.3 percent of female computer science doctoral students in the United States are Black, Latina, Native American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and not many more are Asian women (1.7 percent), according to the Computing Research Association’s 2018 Taulbee Survey. Malcom also shared data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System showing that these kinds of numbers have stayed the same or gotten slightly worse over the past twenty years.

“I do feel that these low numbers of women of color in tech actually threaten the science and engineering enterprise,” Malcom said, especially because technology is at the forefront of solving the problems facing humanity.

While Malcom wants to shift the onus off “special programs” and minority-serving institutions, which are having an outsized impact, she contends others – including professional societies -- can make use of what they have learned and direct their money to what is working.

In recruitment, factors to consider include perceptions or image of the discipline and who goes into it. Malcom cited as an example the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador program, which aims at improving this image more broadly for STEM, and providing role models for middle school girls in particular.

Technical disciplines can also better convey their relevance to the problems faced by communities of color. They can think about what barriers to access and prerequisites might present a problem. But to increase numbers of women of color, Malcom suggested that retention must be considered as much as recruitment – which is where culture and behavior change, and community-building, are critical.

For those making the case for change, Malcom emphasized the need for data that is broken out by demographic group, to show departments or organizations. Such evidence is something that disciplinary societies can help with. “What is happening in the application process? The promotion process? Who gets brought in for a face-to-face? You need data. People won’t believe it otherwise,” she said. You have to be able “to pinpoint where the issues are, and demonstrate to people that yes, you have a problem.” 

Another key is making use of the “naturally competitive nature of institutions.” SEA Change, a AAAS program Malcom directs, is trying to take advantage of this by recognizing institutions for making systemic change toward diversity, equity and inclusion. Such an approach is adapted from a recognition and award program at Athena SWAN in the UK, which gives institutions a rating for gender equality. This program has been successful in part because UK government funders made having a silver rating a requirement for participation in some funding solicitations.

Aside from such top-down measures, Malcom stated that an award or certification must be prestigious enough for institutions to use it to recruit students and faculty, creating pressure for their peer institutions to keep up. SEA Change, which combines gender and race equality, has so far given “bronze awards” to Boston University; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. SEA Change plans to work with disciplinary societies to apply this strategy at the level of university departments as well. Another similar program that has met with success, mentioned during the workshop, is the Seal of Excelencia, which focuses on recognizing institutions for their work in increasing numbers of Latino students in higher education. 

While the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will cause widespread suffering, Malcom hopes when it’s time to rebuild, “people will imagine a different world going forward.”

Malcolm’s keynote kicked off the second of four regional workshops organized by the NASEM committee. Prior to the pandemic causing in-person events to be canceled, it was to be held at Spelman College in Georgia, as part of an effort to learn about “evidence-based, effective programs, models, and practices that academic institutions, employers, and individuals can implement to increase the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women of color in tech.”  

[Associated image: Adam D. Cohen/AAAS]



Elana Kimbrell

Project Director