The Important Role Social Capital Plays in Navigating the Computing Education Ecosystem for Black Girls

November 30, 2023

Black women represent the greatest underrepresentation in STEM fields—and in particular, the technology sector. According to a 2015 article in The Verge, Black women make up between 0 to 7% of the staff at the eight largest technology firms in the United States [1]. This points to a glaring problem in terms of equity and inclusivity in the technology sector. Similar to their underrepresentation in the STEM sector, Black women's underrepresentation in the tech sector is related to pervasive and persistent prejudice and biased policies that endure in the U.S. which have limited—and continue to limit—their access to quality education and spaces where Black women's cultural capital (i.e., ways of being) is acknowledged and appreciated. For most people, including Black women, social networks often make available opportunities and pathways towards realizing the roles they can play in the world or a particular industry [2][3]. These webs of relationships and the embedded quality in them can be defined as an individual's social capital and be applied to any industry, including STEM and technology fields [4]. In a practical sense, social capital allows an individual to leverage relationships for resources (such as information about internships and jobs or encouragement to persist through a difficult college course). In turn, these resources can contribute to economic opportunities (i.e., jobs) or social opportunities, such as relationships with gatekeepers who work in STEM fields that may lead to opportunities like jobs, projects, or financial backing.

Research suggests that the social networks of Black young women rarely overlap with the networks of predominantly white and Asian males, who are overrepresented in the technology field. This weakens Black women's awareness of opportunities and training, and undermines their motivation to persist in the STEM sector [5][6]. As a result of this increasing understanding of the role of social capital in career development, K–12 and higher education programs that are focused on equity in STEM fields have increasingly turned to the concept of social capital to address the traditional underrepresentation of certain groups—in particular, Blacks, Latinos, and women in STEM fields [4][5][6][7][8]. The following research investigates the experiences of Black girls who attended a program, Google's Code Next, designed to engage Black and Latinx youth in computer science (CS). We argue that it is crucial for CS programs not just to teach hard coding skills, but also to build on young Black women's social capital to accommodate the young women in creating and expanding their tech social capital, enabling them to successfully navigate STEM and technology education and career pathways. Specifically, this paper explores a sub-program of Code Next and how it has contributed to young Black women's persistence in STEM, and particularly in technology. The findings suggest that the young women employed an expanded sense of social capital in addition to an expanded cultural capital (i.e., language, skills, ways of being) and worldview (i.e., sense of belonging and self-efficacy) to make sense of their possible selves in the world of technology.