This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub and is written by Erika Hairston.
“Women and minorities just can’t do STEM.”
Hearing this sentence my junior year in high school, back when I aspired to be a U.S. ambassador, chilled me to the bone. From that moment on, I shifted gears, driven almost entirely by a desire to prove that ignorant soul wrong.
Doing some basic research on women and minorities in STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and math), I became aware of the statistics that fed the stereotypes. I was startled — and, for the first time, forced to explore the value of computer science itself. I previously had very little idea how impactful and relevant technical fields could be. When I saw the potential, my mind was set; I plunged into computer science, curious to continue uncovering why so few people who looked like me seemed to be represented.
While the lack of minorities in tech is a major disparity to overcome, it also serves as a source of inspiration. When asked to sit on a panel for Girls Who Code, I thought through the message I wanted a room full of ninth and tenth grade girls to take home. The idea that kept coming back to me was: “Representation matters, and there is no one type of engineer.”
To this day, I stand strongly by that message. While the world tries to tell us otherwise, we — students of color and women — are actively changing the misconceptions. As a Black female passionate about computer science, I follow this personal code of professional integrity that upholds diversity and equality, especially because I’ve recognized that role models and peers play a major part in determining our futures.
I’ve also come to recognize the power that Blackness and womanhood can bring to these important fields. People of color and women have a voice that is not being heard at so many technology tables. I’ve made it my dream to change that — not just for myself, but for the generations of minorities and girls to come.
As a Black woman in computer science, I remember that diversity is more than just a “selling point” for companies and institutions. It is imperative to the growth of our society. Specifically, after working on several group projects where I was the only female and Black person, I noticed a pattern among my classmates: They thought about all sorts of problems and solutions familiar to them, but never once about developing solutions to big problems that affected me.
Experiences like these inform my perspective on how the Black community is generally not benefiting the fruits of important computer science work. We need to remember and embrace the immense capabilities of technology. If targeted properly, our innovations can help protect and inform underprivileged citizens and communities. We can, for example, leverage technology to help mitigate police brutality or aid those suffering in the Flint water crisis. People who are thinking about and experiencing these issues every day should be using tech-driven tools to dismantle several systems of oppression that many current computer scientists do not necessarily have to think about.
Numerous societal problems are waiting to be solved — and I realize more and more that we need untapped and underestimated minds to be among those creating the solutions. Having a mind that is constantly underestimated in this field, I hope to use my skills and perspective to dismantle the industry’s structures of exclusion. By building up future generations of truly diverse computer scientists, we will expand our pool of innovators and informed citizens in a way that benefits us all.
The Well is the editorial hub of Jopwell, the diversity recruitment platform that helps Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students connect with opportunities at top companies and unlock their career potential.
Image courtesy of Erika Hairston