Tech industry's diversity problem starts in college -- and earlier

@CNNMoneyTech November 10, 2011: 2:34 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- "The pipeline problem." That's the catch-all phrase that keeps coming up in discussions of diversity in Silicon Valley.

Tech companies say they'd love to hire more women and minorities, but that too few qualified candidates are graduating with technical degrees. That leaves them choosing from an applicant pool that is largely white, male and Asian.

"We simply cannot get there without schools," said Rosalind Hudnell, Intel's (INTC, Fortune 500) chief diversity officer. "An engineering degree is probably the best you can get for finding a job, yet we don't have enough diverse students taking an interest."

The Computing Research Association (CRA) puts together an annual report that aims to quantify the racial and gender breakdowns of graduating classes at multiple levels.

Like any report, CRA's has its limitations; it covers only schools that grant Ph.Ds in computing. It also employs a narrower view of computer science than some other reports do. Still, it's considered a valuable snapshot of the technical talent emerging from America's universities.

According to CRA, the 2010 undergrad class was more than 66% white and nearly 15% Asian, a group which includes those of Indian descent. Hispanics accounted for 5.6% of the year's computer and information science undergrad degrees, and blacks obtained 4.2% of them. Both of those minorities were outnumbered by non-U.S. residents, who made up 7.6% of 2010's undergrad computer scientists from American universities.

Perhaps the most surprising figure from last year's undergrad class: Only 13.4% were women.

The National Center for Women and Information Technology has slightly different numbers than CRA, but the group says the trend is getting worse. In 1985, women earned 37% of computing and information science degrees. By 2009, that figure had fallen to 18%.

Zynga's "chief people officer," Colleen McCreary, worries that the cultural stereotype of techies "alone, locked in a room, working on a computer" is a turnoff, especially to young women.

"They unfortunately don't always picture themselves in these roles," McCreary said. "The workplace begins to look like the classrooms for those majors: filled with men and not as many women."

At the post-grad level, nonresident figures soar: Just over half of the computer science master's degrees granted last year went to foreign students, CRA says. By the time you hit the Ph.D. level, Hispanic and black American students each make up less than 2% of the graduates.

Cody Horton, a recruiting manager at Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), says waiting to target young people until their college or late high school years might be too late.

"I got interested in tech at a very early age, and that gives you a foundation for all this future schooling," said Horton, who is black and holds a master's degree in IT management. "I look at my own kids, who have been surrounded by tech at all times, and they see the opportunity to have a great career."

The pipeline problem's roots start early: Too few kids get that opportunity. Technical role models are critical for inspiring students to go into classrooms where they don't see anyone who looks like them.

"Every time I took a computer class after Intro to Computers, I was the only black guy," recalled Navarrow Wright, the chief technical officer at digital media company Interactive One. "A white professor showed me how to create graphic shows on the Apple IIe. I was in a prep school in New Hope, Penn., and I was the only black guy in the computer class doing graphic classes. Then when I went to college, it was the exact same thing."

Wright talked this summer about his career path with the participants in the NewMe Accelerator, a training program for aspiring entrepreneurs from underrepresented minorities. CNN chronicled their journey in the documentary The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

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Wright was blunt about the challenges they face. Kids from black neighborhoods often grow up with different role models than those in white or Asian communities: "We believe it's easier to be successful in being an athlete or an entertainer than it is to be an entrepreneur," he told the NewMe group. "We have a perspective problem."

Shifting that view takes time. But there are also immediate steps anyone with enough motivation can tackle right now -- like picking up a manual or diving into a training website and learning how to code.

"Challenge yourself," Wright urged. "If you don't have any [resources] and the only resource is you, then you have to diversify that resource in places you never would've done before."

CNN's Claudia Morales contributed reporting.

The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, the fourth installment in CNN's Black in America series reported by Soledad O'Brien, will premiere November 13 at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the trailer on CNN.com, and check out CNNMoney's full coverage of the project.  To top of page

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