If you’re African American and want to text an emoji that looks like you to a friend, until now you’ve been out of luck. But that’s about to change, thanks to the Unicode Consortium (the group responsible for standardizing and developing emojis). It announced last February that users would be able to select from five skin tones for any emoji that looks human. Considering emojis have entered into people’s daily lexicon, and given that several emojis exist for something as simple as a car, it’s about time users have faces and hands that look more like actual technology users throughout the world—faces that are black and brown, as well as white.
The tech industry’s lack of social diversity isn’t breaking news. Major tech companies have announced their numbers and the largest tech giants are nearly 90 percent white and Asian, with a predominantly male leadership. But the lack of diversity shows up in more than company stats—it shows up in the products millions of people use and depend on in their daily lives.
Another example: Apple didn’t include a way to track menstrual cycles in its HealthKit app. Sure, HealthKit will help track your sodium and copper intake, but what if you’re in the half of the population that needs to pay attention to when they are menstruating, the single-most trackable measure that affects multiple aspects of women’s health? You’ll have to download a separate app (which, apparently, may also have been made by a man.)
But technology’s whiteness and maleness isn’t a problem only because the products like emojis or apps often don’t reflect the needs or interests of all their users. It’s also a problem because of what we’re missing. What kind of devices, products, or amazing wondertools of tomorrow don’t we have because only a sliver of society controls the tech world?
“We don’t even know what the world would look like if we gave girls the leverage and the power of technology,” said Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code founder, in a MAKERS video. Girls Who Code is a program aiming to teach computer science education to 1 million girls by 2020. “Their ideas are so different than if I was teaching a group of 20 boys. And all their ideas are centered around changing the world.”
If we want to find out what the world would look like, we need to open up more opportunities for STEM learning and build skills in technology among the rest of the population early on. As several writers have noted, it’s not simply a “pipeline” issue—there are still problems in hiring practices and company cultures that impede a diverse workforce. For example, Hastings College of the Law Professor Joan Williams’ research has delved into some of the ongoing biases that push women out of the STEM workforce. But STEM in schools is certainly a place to start.
As Catherine Rampell explained in the Washington Post, “Few [schools] teach any tech skills beyond how to consume, rather than create, technology. Which is understandable, to an extent; if you’re a struggling public school, you’re not going to invest resources in computer science when your funding depends on not leaving children behind in math and reading.”
But changing public school curricula is a slow process, which is why out-of-school programs and informal learning spaces may be a critical way to help kids get these kinds of experiences.
Here in Pittsburgh, middle school girls at Assemble’s Girls’ Maker Nights use the easy coding programming language Scratch, work together on monthly maker projects, and meet local STEAM experts.
And last fall, teen mentors in a program called Tech Warriors from the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) taught elementary schoolers in underserved neighborhoods how to build robots, code, and create animations.
“We’re giving inner city youth exposure to the technology education field and leadership skills in the classroom by having them be role models to younger students,” Cole Hoyer Winfield, program coordinator for the NLA, told NEXT Pittsburgh. “It provides them with opportunities and exposures they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Providing underrepresented groups the same kinds of opportunities to pursue STEM learning isn’t only fair and just, but the untapped potential and talent will inevitably improve the potential of technology for everyone.