According to the National Research Council, modern-day students must develop and consistently hone their computational skills in order to compete in a global economy. Sadly, as technology advances socioeconomic divides mean those left behind now have little chances of competing later.
Not willing to settle for disenfranchised Black women and girls playing catch-up, last year Dr. Jakita Owensby Thomas and Dr. Jamika Burge launched The Research Coalition for Black Women & Girls to explore the experiences of African-American women in computer sciences and create an action plan to increase their presence in STEM fields. Already in action, the organization is hosting its inaugural “Black Women in Computing” conference Jan. 6-8 at Howard University’s Interdisciplinary Research Center. The event’s speakers include Michaela Angela Davis,writer, activist and CNN contributor; Lisa Gelobter, White House/Chief Digital Service Officer at the U.S. Department of Education and many others.
EBONY.com caught up with group’s co-founder Dr. Jakita Owensby Thomas to discuss the big event and more.
EBONY.COM: How did the Black Women In Computing (BWIC) community come to life?
Dr. Jakita Owensby Thomas: The STEM community is very small so we always have informally known each other through the The Anita Borg Institute, a sponsor of the conference. We started to see a trend in the computing field [where] more attention was paid to women, but in general terms. Black women are minorities in terms of race and gender, and we didn’t feel that there was enough awareness about the particular kinds of issues we faced. In October of 2015 myself and Jamika Burge got together and submitted a proposal to host a workshop so that we could begin to understand a little bit more some of the needs for our community of Black women in computing. Last January, we held the workshop in Washington, D.C., and later established The Research Coalition For Black Girls and Women in Computing. The coalition is hosting this conference.
EBONY.COM: Do you and your co-founder come from computer related backgrounds?
Dr.Thomas: Yes. We’re both computer scientists. We both have Ph.D.s in computer science. Dr. Burge received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and I earned mine at Georgia Tech.
EBONY.COM: You both have earned Ph.D.s, which is no easy feat. Tell us why the overall stats around Black women in the field create a cause for concern?
Dr. Thomas: The statistics are quite daunting. Blacks represent no more than about 2 percent of the Ph.D.s in computing that are awarded. The interesting thing is that when you look at the research that’s been done on Black women and computing, at the undergraduate level we come in with a greater intent to major in STEM areas than any other group but when you look down the pipeline, we aren’t completing those degrees. There is very little research that really examines the intersection of race and gender to understand why that’s happening.
EBONY.COM: Tell us about the conference and why the organization chose to kick it off at Howard University.
Dr. Thomas: For us, it just made sense to be at an HBCU and we were very excited that Howard was interested in partnering with us. We have three areas of focus for the workshop. The first is wellness and wholeness. As Black women in computing we deal unique stressors. It is also important for the community that we develop leadership among the “grand dammes” as we would call them, who are kind of the pioneers of our field, so we are last focusing on leadership. The third focus is really on skill development and problem solving like “What do you do in this kind of situation?” or “Who do you go to when you need to find this out?” Black women don’t often have access to the same resources that other groups may have even in terms of people and knowledge sharing, so it’s a space for all of those different kinds of things to happen.
EBONY.COM: Looking beyond the conference, what are the advantages of membership?
Dr. Thomas: The primary benefit is camaraderie. Black women who are in computing fields on their job, in graduate school, and undergrad are often the only ones within that space or they are one of very few. It can feel lonely. The organization is a way to plug into the community to get mentorship, leadership training, and make connections to find out about opportunities that may exist.
EBONY.COM: What are the organization’s goals for the next year?
Dr. Thomas: We want to make sure that we are strengthening our partnerships and executing more conferences. We also have a number of research efforts. We also created a film that was featured at the Grace Hopper conference this past year called Owning Our Voices and we’re collecting additional digital narratives. As we grow we hope to be able to provide workshops and webinars throughout the year.
EBONY.COM: Why should people outside of the computer industry get involved with this mission?
Dr. Thomas: I do think that it’s extremely important that even people outside computing get involved because computing touches every other field. I can’t think of one discipline that is not supported in some way by technology. If we are talking about being able to create innovations within any field, computer science is going to be a part of how that thing gets manifested and if you really want to create innovative technology you need different perspectives. You can’t have group think.
EBONY.COM: How can people get involved?
Dr. Thomas: Reach out to the organization to have a discussion about what makes sense in terms of partnership. There is really no one size fits all. Follow our work! Our hash tag is #blackcomputerHER. That’s another way that people can find out about what we’re doing.
Allyson Leak is journalist and the co-author of The Goddess Potential: A Guide To Developing A Relationship With Your Inner Self. Follow her @twinmommymogul.