HIGH-SCHOOL GIRLS ARE taking more Advanced Placement computer engineering exams than ever before, according to a new report from and the College Board. In 2017, largely thanks to a new test aimed at expanding the reach of engineering classes, female participation in these AP tests increased at a faster rate than young boys’ participation on the exam in 2017.
For women hoping to have careers in computer engineering, this kind of early training can make all the difference. The field of computer science is growing so fast it outpaces all other occupations in the US. It’s great work if you can get it. In fact, 70 percent of students who take this AP exam say they want to work in computer science. Trouble is, it’s mostly white or Asian men who land these high-paying jobs.
Experts say to change that you’ve got to combat the so-called “pipeline problem,” educating women and people of color so they come out of high school and college with the right degrees to enter the field. Heartening numbers like this report are a good step in the right direction. But they also belie the fact that getting women and people of color into the pipeline is just the beginning. The real challenge is supporting these engineers once they enter the field—and actually hiring them in the first place.
Though the increases reported for women and people of color taking this exam should be celebrated, they are fairly modest gains in the scheme of things. This year, 135 percent more women took the AP Computer Science exam than last year. Much of that growth, however, is because the total number of students who took the AP Computer science exam more than doubled on the whole to 111,262 students—spurred on by a new AP course aiming to broaden the reach of computer science and bring the subject to underprivileged communities in urban and rural areas.says participation from black and Latino students in the AP exam increased by 170 percent compared to one year ago—though that combines two groups together. it is possible the proportion of black students and of Latino students, taken separately, did not increase faster than the rate of boys who took the AP exam this year.
“Seeing these gains among female, black, and Hispanic students is a story of how we can bring opportunity to people who need it the most,” says Hadi Partovi, CEO and cofounder of.
Ten years ago, only 18 percent of computer science exam takers were women. This year that figure rose to 27 percent—slightly lower than the average proportion of women employed in the tech industry, which hovers at around 30 percent. It’s the same for young people of color: for nearly a decade, the proportion of young POCs who took the AP Computer Science exam stalled at 12 to 13 percent. But in 2016, 15 percent of exam takers were young people of color—then that went up to 20 percent in 2017.
“I’m delighted to hear that more female, black, and Latino students are taking AP computer science,” says Rachel Thomas, a deep learning researcher and advocate for diversity. “I attended a very poor public high school in Texas, but I was incredibly lucky that they were offering AP computer science 17 years ago. My guidance counselor discouraged me from taking the course, and I’m proud of teenage me for standing my ground in wanting to take it,” she says.
The excitement in the new AP course shows that if educators bring computer science to more people a more diverse people will jump into the pool of job candidates. And that will, in turn, help to supply the industry with computer science graduates and address the projected talent shortagefor the tech industry in the years to come.
Workplace Culture Still Needs to Change
The pipeline problem, however, is far from the only thing keeping women and minorities out of engineering. Universities already graduate Latino, black, and female students at a much higher rate than tech companies hire them.
Women leave technology companies at twice the rate of men, according to a survey from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The trend is similar for people of color in tech. This is a culture problem, not a pipeline one.
“Most major tech companies are revolving doors in which women and people of color quit at similar rates to which they’re hired due to poor treatment, lack of advancement opportunities, and unfairness,” says Thomas. “I think it is a total smoke screen when major tech companies celebrates while continuing to fail to address their own toxic environments.”
Worse yet, seeing improvements in diversity doesn’t mean the trend will hold. In the 1960s and ’70s, the number of women studying computer science outpaced men. And yet, after the 1984-1985 academic year in which women accounted for nearly 37 percent of all computer science undergraduate students, the percentage flattened out, dropping to 14 percent by 2014.
“Getting women and people of color into the pipeline is one thing,” says Tracy Cross, a professor of educational psychology at The College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education. “But if we aren’t keeping them in the field, that’s not enough.”
A recent slew of sexual harassment stories pouring out of Silicon Valley shows the extremes of how toxic the field can be for women. But there are subtler ways, too, that the Valley can alienate people. “There are many forms of disrespect, devaluing, demeaning, and isolating behavior that occur in these male dominated fields, some of them by good intention, some of them by ill intention, and some of them unintentional,” says Denise Wilson, a professor of engineering who got her tech degree in the late ’80s.
The VC and tech industries have efforts in the works to fix this culture problem, including drafting a decency pledge, a blacklist, and other public promises. With more women and people of color entering the pipeline, tech companies have more candidates to hire—and more candidates they must do right by.