UT student, professors find uniformity in campus diversity

By Brooke Sjoberg

AUSTIN — Sierra Premph, a computer science and neuroscience sophomore, said she is the only black woman in the Turing Honors Program, intended to provide a top-notch education to outstanding computer science students.

“I’ve seen maybe a handful of other minorities in the computer science department, and not many women either,” Premph said. “In tech, there’s kind of a boys’ club mentality. If you’re a white guy, it’s really easy to get into it because you’re accepted really easily because everyone else is a white guy. If you aren’t, you’re excluded.”

Premph is not alone in her observation of gender discrimination in the tech industry. The Pew Research Center conducted a 2017 survey that described women as being more sensitive to gender discrimination than men. In the survey, 44 percent of women said discrimination in the tech industry is a major problem, whereas only 29 percent of men said so.

“I was at a club meeting and I was talking to a black dude who was in computer science, but he decided to leave to go to computer engineering,” Premph said. “He stated that he left because he felt excluded in computer science.”

This exclusion of minorities in tech is a far-reaching trend spanning the whole industry. The same survey measuring perception of gender bias in tech also measured perceived racial discrimination in the industry. Roughly two-thirds of African Americans and half of Hispanics said they felt racial discrimination in tech is a major problem in the industry, while only 21 percent of white participants said so. Premph said racial inequality in tech is more motivation than deterrent.

“I love to be the underdog and I kind of revel in having to prove myself,” Premph said. “It’s made me work that much harder in what I do.”

Richard Reddick is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration within the College of Education. He, along with three other faculty researchers, presented research on the issue of equity and social justice in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math- or STEM- in a panel as part of the College of Education’s Fall 2017 Colloquium Series.

Reddick’s research focuses primarily on cross-racial mentoring at the college level and a lack of diversity among faculty of primarily white institutions, such as UT.

“Here’s some news,” Reddick said. “You’ve probably noticed, it’s pretty hard to find same-race mentors at primarily white institutions like UT. Look at the faculty. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there aren’t a lot of black folks in the faculty. We have pretty good numbers for a PWI, but we don’t have great numbers the same as we do for Latino faculty or Asian-American faculty.”

Reddick teaches a course on mentorship, which is where he said he puts his findings from empirical research to use.

“One of the issues that I get asked to talk about a lot is mentoring, and in particular cross-race mentoring,” Reddick said. “My focus is on Black students but I believe that these findings actually work really well with Latino students, Asian-American students, and Native American students.”

Reddick’s research showed that if the mentee and mentor both was or was not an important issue, they were a good fit. If they disagreed, they were determined to be a poor fit.

“Generally you find trust is an important thing in any mentoring relationship,” Reddick said. “But when it comes to something like race, which has such a pivotal sort of weight on our experience of being black in this country, it becomes really important to have trust in place.”

Other members of the panel included Fikile Nxumalo, an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction and Yasmiyn Irizarry, an assistant professor in the Departments of Sociology and African Diaspora studies. Nxumalo’s research focused on race, environmental education and early childhood, while Irizarry traced the trajectory of STEM students through high school and college.

Nxumalo referenced discourses of childhood innocence and pure nature that can be traced back to the modernist romantic era, and to european philosophies of childhood. She said Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conflated and romanticized idealization for instance, of childhood and nature, such as in his writing about nature’s child, who learns ideally by freely exploring nature, which is positioned as the ultimate teacher, has been particularly influential.

“So from the early twentieth century on, North American nature education for young children has been overwhelmingly accompanied by images of individual innocence of the child that learns from direct experiences with nature,” Nxumalo said. “Now there’s extensive scholarship that critiques the racialized assumptions of childhood innocence. For instance, the ascription of childhood innocence as white secured the power derived from that status.”

She also said research into American child education programs showed a continuation of this pattern. Schools in primarily black areas did not place the same emphasis on learning about the natural environment as their primarily white counterparts did. Nxumalo credited this as a factor in the lack of diversity in STEM later in the education cycle.

“It starts young,” Nxumalo said.

As children grow and move on to high school and college, many of their transitional experiences can be tied to their race, Irizarry said.

“One of the main areas I’ve been focusing on in my research is in math trajectory- students’ trajectories through school- particularly access to advanced math classes,” Irizarry said. “In the sociological work on advanced math, we don’t talk so much about curriculum, we talk about all the reasons why advanced math matters.”

Irizarry said said advanced math doesn’t matter just so people can graduate from high school, and it doesn’t just exist in service of the STEM fields. Rather, she said it matters because it makes the difference in graduating from college with a STEM degree and the life course in general.

“There’s research now that suggests that it can not only predict your income 10 to 20 years later, but also many outcomes at 50 and 60 years old,” Irizarry said.

Brooke Sjoberg is a Journalism and Radio-Television-Film student at The University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter @Sj0b3rg