Double Bind Creates Leaky Tech Pipelines: The Story of an Indigenous Woman in Computer Science

Frieda McAlear
Dec 19, 2018 · 7 min read

#MeToo #NotInvisible

As part of the colonization of our territories, my mother was sent by the US government from her small Inupiat coastal village to a Native Alaskan boarding school hundreds of miles from her parents for most of the year. Teachers and school staff physically punished students if they spoke our Native languages at school. Some of the youngest children did not speak enough English at the time to understand why they were being hit, nor could their terrified friends and siblings step in to help. Other, much more severe psychological and sexual abuses have been documented in these schools. I’ve had to rely on these sources to understand more about my mom’s experiences — she has never been able to disclose to me what she endured. In her final years of boarding school, my mom and her classmates were told they weren’t “college material.” She could decide which of two vocational training opportunities she wanted to pursue after graduation: beauty or secretary school.

My mother on a foraging trip while visiting her Native village in Alaska

The Double Bind in Tech

I’m the Senior Research Associate at the Kapor Center. I’m also a proud member of Alaska’s Inupiat tribe, a Computer Science Major, and a cisgender woman. As you can imagine, my lived experiences are rare in my field and discussions about Native American women, especially in light of ongoing colonial practices like those endured by my mother, are often overlooked in tech diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Across the tech sector, CEOs and leaders in innovation are investing in strategies to increase diversity in their hiring and retention of employees. Yet these strategies are often aimed at increasing participation of either women or underrepresented people of color. Research suggests that the underrepresentation of women of color (Black, Latinx, and Native American/Native Alaskan/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander) in tech is related to the additional challenges faced by having a marginalized race and a marginalized gender. The Double Bind, a term coined by researcher Shirley Malcom, is the notion that that women of color are less likely to enter and persist in computing when diversity programs and initiatives exclude their specific challenges to working in tech.

I understand the Double Bind from a personal perspective as well as a professional one. While my work at the Kapor Center is tech-adjacent, I specifically chose not to pursue a career in Computer Science. This is my story.

One of my mother’s dreams was for me to get a good education, nothing like the Native boarding school she attended. So I was raised in an affluent suburb and attended well-resourced schools. I knew from a young age however that my family didn’t have the wealth that my school friends did and that I would have to support my family financially throughout my adult life. Driven by that purpose, I was one of the very few Native Alaskan/Native American women who attended college in my large extended family. I studied Computer Science to ensure that I could get a profitable job after graduation, and that I would always be able to earn enough to help my family with their food, rent, and gas.

College, however, was a challenging place to begin learning CS. My overwhelmingly male classmates were often already confident about their computing skills from having had years of experience developing their computing proficiency. They had grown up playing and modifying games on their computers, assembling their own home desktop computers, and hand coding websites using HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Some of them were not attending college to learn new CS or coding skills, but to earn a credential that would help position them for leadership within the industry. I hadn’t learned coding in high school and we did not have a desktop computer at home. I was so lonely in my major that I convinced another woman of color at my college to switch majors in her second year so we could support each other through the coursework. Loneliness and lack of preparation, however, turned out to be among the least significant challenges I faced in my major.

One afternoon, the Dean of the CS department had a course advising session in his office. During our conversation, without warning he leaned over and started to slowly finger my earrings. As quickly as I could,I pulled away and left his office in a mild state of shock. I made sure that I was never in a room alone with him again. My experience was added to a number of complaints made by other students about his lack of professionalism. However, he remained in his post and taught classes until retiring a few years later.

In another class, one of my male classmates was known to leave a classroom by weaving through the array of students and desks, squeezing through by brushing the entire front of his body across the bodies of his female classmates who were standing to gather their books. I had to learn how to leave the room without standing in his path. These experiences were added to a lifetime of unwanted sexual aggressions and traumatization I’d already faced from other men with STEM backgrounds.

As with Native boarding school abuse, the staggering rates of sexual assault, stalking, and rape of Native American women are part of the story of underrepresentation for Native women and girls in STEM and throughout academia. Fully Eighty-four percent of Native American women report experiencing violence in their lifetime. More than half of that violence is sexual and overwhelmingly the violence is perpetrated by non-indigenous men. Today, in response to #MeToo and the epidemic of sexual violence against Native American women, the #NotInvisible campaign is raising awareness of the impact of colonization on our communities.

My mother had worked hard to ensure that I would not encounter the same dehumanizing treatment she had faced at boarding school however she couldn’t protect me from the broader forces of colonization, including sexual violence.

I completed my CS degree with Honors, but I knew well before that point that I would not feel safe working in the tech industry.

— — — — — — — — — —

One way to understand the Double Bind is to ground it in the experiences of women of color working currently in tech. Recently released data suggest that a woman of color working in Silicon Valley is likely to face the sexism of receiving lower pay for doing the same job as a white man at the same time she experiences the racism of working for a company whose search algorithms misrepresent Black youth, or the racism of being mistaken for a janitor while working in a professional role in a tech company. The additional challenges faced by women of color in tech contribute to the highest pay disparities for Black and Latinx women in tech compared with any other groups of women.

Despite being one of the fastest growing groups in the population (39% of all women in the U.S.) and one of the most entrepreneurial groups (80% of small businesses), underrepresented women of color makeup just under 3% of the Silicon Valley tech workforce and less than 2% of leadership positions in tech. Disparities in the access to technology and rigorous courses in computer science are reflected early in childhood education and continue throughout the tech ecosystem. Despite these early disparities, Black women enter STEM college degree programs at higher rates than white women, particularly those in the physical sciences.

While my story and that of my family is rooted specifically in our Native community, there are similar systemic barriers that women of color face in entering computing college and career pathways across the U.S., like access to computers, language, stereotype threat*, and sexual harassment. Understanding and addressing systemic challenges are part of why I am passionate about the Women of Color in Computing Researcher-Practitioner Collaborative. Launched with my colleagues at the Kapor Center and the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology at Arizona State University, we are building a foundational research/practice portfolio and creating tools needed to transform the tech ecosystem for women of color at each stage in their career trajectories.

Although critical changes have been made in education since my mother’s boarding school years, much more work needs to be done to create a welcoming, fair, and equitable culture for women of color entering the tech ecosystem. As I’ve learned from #MeToo and #NotInvisible, connecting the stories of women of color across generations and communities is a powerful tool of transformation, healing, and resiliency. My mother’s story continues to live in my own and I am honored to contribute it to the vital and urgent work of the Collaborative.

To learn more about the Collaborative and get involved, go to www.wocincomputing.org.

*Stereotype Threat — (the anxiety of conforming to negative group stereotypes)

Acknowledgements

This article was generously and thoughtfully edited by Anna McAlear, Eric Wingerter, Lanz Bañes, and Ray Sukin Klauber.

The Bridge

Conversations at the intersection of tech, diversity, and entrepreneurship

Frieda McAlear

Written by

Senior Research Associate, Kapor Center

The Bridge

Conversations at the intersection of tech, diversity, and entrepreneurship

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