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Diversity in tech: The pipeline is the solution, not the problem

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Juan Gilbert

Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, the Banks Preeminence Chair in Engineering at the University of Florida, visited UW to discuss diversity in the tech industry on Feb. 8th.

There is a glaring issue when it comes to representation of minorities in computer science and engineering majors across the country. About 10 to 12 percent of undergraduates in computer science nationwide are black, but the problem gets a lot worse as students enter graduate school. Just 1.3 percent of computer science Ph.D. students are black and only 1.6 percent for Hispanic Ph.D. students. 

A lack of diversity is not just a student problem; in total, people that are black or Hispanic makeup only 4.4 percent of faculty in computer science departments in the United States. 

As one of those few African-American Ph.D. recipients, Juan Gilbert is no stranger to the problem of diversity in the tech industry. Gilbert is the chair of engineering, computer & information science & engineering at the University of Florida and spoke at the UW on Thursday about how to make the technology sector more diverse.

Gilbert spoke as part of the Men of Color in Engineering Leadership Series presented by the UW Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

Gilbert connected his own life story to those of the underrepresented minorities studying computer science. He was the first in his family to go to college, but never wanted to go to graduate school. In the end, the idea of becoming a professor excited him enough to get a doctorate.

“I made an observation that I was the only African-American in the world pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science because I had never seen one,” Gilbert said. 

Kibrom Berhane, a student at Everett Community College hoping to transfer to the UW in the fall, has dealt with this same issue in his math and science classes.

“The biggest thing is that you recognize it, you recognize that you’re the only person in the room who happens to be of color,” Berhane said. 

Gilbert saw the constant stream of Asian and Indian students in the field and attributed it to an idea he called “footprints in the sand.” 

“They knew where to live; they knew what to eat; they knew what class to take; they knew everything,” Gilbert said.

It’s no secret that students often form friend groups along racial lines, so being the only African-American in the program made forming a community difficult. Eduardo Rojas Esparza, a senior human centered design & engineering major, has seen that having a group of friends with similar experiences makes it easier to succeed. He notes that his major is an exception to the rule in engineering when it comes to racial and gender equality. 

“I have a group of friends and most of them are Latinos or Latinas and that cohesion really helps us move, progress forward,” Rojas Esparza said. 

Gilbert began building a network of other African-American faculty. He first worked at Auburn University with two other African-American faculty members in the computer science department. The three of them together represented the largest African-American computer science faculty of any university at the time.

Gilbert and his colleagues worked to encourage a diverse freshman class of computer science majors at Auburn until they had the largest group of African-American students studying computing in the nation.

He then moved to Clemson University where he became the chair of human-centered computing, affording him the opportunity to hire Ph.D. candidates. Soon enough, Clemson had roughly 10 percent of the African-American Ph.D. students specializing in computing in the entire country. 

Then, the University of Florida made Gilbert an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he moved much of his team to Gainesville, including five faculty and 20 Ph.D. students.

Before his arrival, they had only graduated two or three African-American Ph.D. students and had one African-American faculty member in computing.

Meanwhile, Clemson still had 10 Ph.D. students in computer science after Gilbert’s departure due to his work in the program.

“It was a cultural shift change and it persists,” Gilbert said. “Same thing at Auburn.”

Now, Florida holds one of the most diverse and balanced Computer & Information Science & Engineering colleges in the nation. 12.2 percent of faculty members are African-American, 4.9 percent are Hispanic, and 29.3 percent are women. Meanwhile, black students make up 12.2 percent of the Ph.D. program, while 6.5 percent are Hispanic. While this is still far from the demographic of America as a whole, they are far better than the national average for diversity in computer science. Additionally, three American Indians are working toward their Ph.D.s there, which is rare amongst university programs.

“Some of these students will go through the PhD program and never will have had to take a class in graduate school and be the only African-American in their class,” Gilbert said. “Because they all are together.”

Students from underrepresented groups previously didn’t see graduate school as a viable option, but Gilbert’s work has shown that change is possible with truly inclusive policies. 


Reach reporter Jake Goldstein-Street at Twitter @GoldsteinStreet

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