The spread of COVID-19—which has higher hospitalizations and death rates among communities of color—is threatening the gains we’ve made in the tech industry and an education system already grappling with inequities.
It’s hardly news that women—especially women of color—are underrepresented in the U.S. tech sector. The Rebooting Representation report revealed that the drop-off of women’s involvement in tech occurs before the transition between college and the workforce. As COVID-19 makes the lives of late high school and early college students uncertain, young women of color working toward a career in tech are facing a steeper uphill battle as they try not to be left further behind in an evolving new normal. These are some of the barriers they’re facing.
The COVID-19 pandemic does discriminate, and the effects extend to women of color studying computing. The CDC found that 33% of people who have been hospitalized with the virus are Black, yet only 13% of the U.S. population is Black. This disproportionate toll affects young women of color who are pursuing computing degrees. If they and their families are more susceptible to poor health outcomes, and even more at-risk in the wake of COVID-19, then they are more likely to change their plans to enter a four-year degree program in the fall. In fact, a 2020 survey conducted by the Art & Science Group and SimpsonScarborough revealed that 12% of students said they, or a family member, had health concerns that required them to change their plans.
Extraneous factors—which are only heightened because of COVID-19—also prevent women of color from studying computer science. For example, the American Indian College Fund (AICF), one of Reboot’s grantees, recognizes that the majority of their students spend time caring for dependents, which is not factored into traditional models for college students. That’s why the College Fund offers an array of services such as career planning, family events, fellowships, mentoring, and family support. Programs with wraparound services achieve higher grad rates than those with only basic funding, according to AICF.
Women of color are overrepresented in jobs that are taking the hardest hit right now—making up the majority of the hospitality, childcare, and retail industries. They are facing significant financial losses, and unemployment rates are only expected to increase, continuing to affect the most vulnerable workers. These increasing financial burdens leave more prospective bachelor’s students likely to consider alternative options for their future.
Women of color have traditionally faced barriers to computing education and internship opportunities too. Reboot’s grantee Break Through Tech New York (BTT) recognizes that students may not have internet at home or access to devices and provides everything from MetroCards and laptops to free lunch and dinner on-site. Students who have to forego paying jobs in order to join the BTT Summer Guild program receive stipends. All of these resources and services are still happening in the new distance-learning environments brought on by COVID-19. Separately, some school districts are turning school buses into Wi-Fi hotspots for students without internet access.
Changes in standardized testing and grading policies and shifts to online learning have the potential to negatively impact high school students who are part of underrepresented groups. Low-income students already face disadvantages when it comes to standardized testing, and due to new social distancing regulations, standardized tests—including AP tests, the SAT, and the ACT—are being postponed and administered much less frequently. The backlog of test takers coupled with fewer test dates and centers available each month will make it exceedingly hard for low-income students to schedule a test and commute to the centers. The results of these tests affect not only which college students attend but also the level of the curriculum they take once they get there.
So, what’s next?
In order to collectively support Black, Latinx, and Native American women interested in pursuing a computing degree and successfully moving into the tech sector, we must all be aware of these new presenting symptoms of inequities. And, just as these issues preceded COVID-19, they will extend well beyond its existence. But it is possible to create inclusive and supportive learning environments where women who might already be overlooked or lack confidence can thrive. We can take what we’ve learned through responding to this crisis—the solutions, innovative ideas, and sense of urgency—to accelerate change.
Dwana Franklin-Davis is the CEO of Reboot Representation.