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Why programs to diversify tech so often fall apart

Gabriela González, the deputy director of the Intel Foundation, says we need to rethink how we educate young girls about STEM.

Why programs to diversify tech so often fall apart

The "Million Girls Moonshot" is a collaborative project to engage 1 million girls in STEM learning opportunities over the next five years.

Photo: Getty Images

The U.S. government, nonprofits, foundations and corporations for decades have poured millions of dollars into programs to attract more women and minorities into the STEM fields — often to little avail. So how does a new program hope to succeed where others have failed?

Gabriela González, the deputy director of the Intel Foundation, is helping to helm the "Million Girls Moonshot," a collaborative project with the Intel Foundation, the STEM Next Opportunity Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and an array of community partners to engage 1 million girls in STEM learning opportunities over the next five years.

González says there's "a lot of duplication and redundancy" in STEM outreach programs that have gone before. "Targeting the same girls in the same communities who may already be aligned, who are doing well in math and science, who may have parents that are engineers and scientists, who may be receiving tutoring and have additional resources," is a big part of the problem, she said in a recent interview with Protocol.

In fact, González, determined to help fix the problems that have beset outreach in the past, is now working on a doctorate to figure out how the confluence of ethnicity, gender, class and culture may influence the success of STEM programs. So maybe this time it can be different.

Protocol spoke with González about how the Million Girls Moonshot is navigating structural issues like a lack of internet access for young girls, redundancy in STEM education programs and what advice she gives students about discrimination in the workplace.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the Million Girls Moonshot?

The Million Girls Moonshot is a movement, it's not a program. It's several organizations that came together as inaugural funders to launch this movement. It's really a nationwide movement designed to help close the gender gap in STEM by engaging an additional one million more girls in after-school STEM learning opportunities. We're taking a page from the original moonshot. The key thing is this is a collaboration involving several companies, organizations, that are like-minded and that share values, to try to minimize redundancy and duplication in our efforts. Again, this extends to all fifty states in the U.S. so we're working with public partners, private partners, nonprofit partners, to try to divide and conquer in an effective and productive way.

What role does Intel play in getting to that 1 million?

Everybody brings their strength to the movement, so we're leveraging the CS Mott Foundation's after-school networks across all 50 states. They reach about 10 million youth in 100,000 programs across all 50 states. And so by working through that infrastructure that's been already invested [in] and built over time, the Intel Foundation will then leverage that after-school network in order to help bring STEM education resources.

Beyond the funding that we provide to help fund additional after-school network resources and nonprofit resources and activate those, we're also activating our employees by asking them to engage through volunteering, by either mentoring, role-modeling, [or] doing online activities around STEM skills. We're also going to leverage our future skills, challenges and activities to help students develop design thinking skills and solving problems, right alongside with the engineering mindset. So that's what Intel brings, as well as we've been working very closely with inaugural funders on how we are going to make all this work across all the 50 states and across all the partners.

This seems so difficult to do, and it occurs to me that one of the primary challenges you might face when trying to do something this large is getting poor and disadvantaged girls connected to the internet and getting them devices to engage with the full breadth of STEM opportunities. So how does this initiative plan to get girls connected and devices they need if this is really going to work?

One way that Intel is helping with that is we recently convened a partnership group with First Book to launch the Creating Learning Connections Initiative, which was designed to support students in Title I eligible school districts affected by the COVID pandemic. What this provided was access for educators to critical tools and resources, including internet connectivity and technology devices.

Is that connected to the Million Girls Moonshot or is that a separate initiative?

Everything we do is connected. We work in unison and in parallel in support of each other, even if we approach it from different angles. Again, this initiative around creative learning also expanded to several states across the U.S., which again, is just connecting the dots.

For the Million Girls Moonshot, you say you're going to be contributing resources, volunteer manpower. Are you contributing any technological products, or what are the resources you're going to be giving to the movement?

Intel Corp. is the product piece. The Intel Foundation, we don't provide any products per se. But again through the funding, we will enable each of the states to determine how to best use that funding and apply it to acquire whatever equipment they need, whatever resources they need. The decisions on how to apply the funding will be made at the state level.

How are you ensuring that this initiative effectively gets through to young girls in underserved communities, Black and Latinx girls across the country?

Of course, we will have an evaluation methodology in practice to ensure that these resources are reaching those specific communities. But it's also embedded and integrated in what I mentioned before, in terms of the shared values. When we got together, one of the shared values was to be very intentional about reaching out to those specific communities: rural areas, border towns, areas that have been historically left out of quality STEM resources and access to high-quality STEM education. So we are working on acquiring new partners, what we call implementation partners, that have a track record of being able to reach those particular communities and have trusted relationships with those particular communities. So again, we're being very intentional in our approach, and as we gather strength for the movement, we are engaging additional nonprofit partners that have a proven track record of working with the communities we care about.

An unbelievable amount of money has been spent to improve diversity in STEM fields, particularly when it comes to women and minorities. Why is this influx of cash not translating into significant demographic changes in the tech industry workforce? Where are these things breaking out?

That was the trigger that got me to go back to school and get my Ph.D. I think there's a lot of duplication and redundancy. There's also some systemic cycles, always going after the same girls in the same communities because it's easier to do or because they're maybe already aligned to pursue STEM education. So I'll give you an example. Let's just say, in a community in Anytown, USA, we have several nonprofit organizations that are funded by private industry or by government agencies to deliver a STEM curriculum. They may all be working with the same schools because of their location or because of their ability to have access to resources. And it just makes it easier if the girls have their own transportation to get to the STEM education sessions.

A lot of that is just perpetuating those cycles. We're targeting the same girls in the same communities who may already be aligned, who are doing well in math and science, who may have parents that are engineers and scientists, who may be receiving tutoring and have additional resources.

What happens, then, is you just kind of keep pounding the same pavement all the time versus really fanning out and reaching out to those communities that have been left out. Because they're difficult to reach, because the kids don't have parents that can drive them to the sessions, because the young people may have part-time jobs that they need to do in order to help their family, so they don't have that extra time. So there's a lot of inequities, systemic inequities, built into some of the STEM program outreach designs that we have, which I think have prevented us [from making progress]. I think we've been duplicating rather than really collaborating. This whole idea around collective impact and the methodology, I think, is really compelling as an argument to say, "Let's make better use of our resources."

Gabriela González, the deputy director of the Intel Foundation, says there's "a lot of duplication and redundancy" in STEM outreach programs that have gone before.Photo: Intel Foundation

You say they keep coming back to these same schools and communities. Are those disproportionately white, wealthy and urban?

I think primarily urban. I think rural communities tend to have one of the largest disadvantages. Sometimes it's just a matter of infrastructure; access to internet may be difficult in some rural communities. Access to companies that are situated or located in large urban areas and not in rural areas, and access to those resources, just by the nature of their location, sometimes rural communities are largely disadvantaged. I think within urban communities, too, there's pockets. Again, it just really depends on how the development of the area or the resources that schools have, there's a lot of dependencies.

Do you see the Million Girls Moonshot addressing some of these breakdowns you've identified?

That's what we're going after. We've never done it before. We're putting our bets on the fact that by working together and distributing the challenge, and getting more partners … It's not easy work at all, collective impact work is really difficult, and I think that's why for many years, people shied away. It's easier to do it alone. But by doing it alone, it's also hard to sustain because we have limited resources. So when you have limited resources, and everybody wants a cut of the pie, the pie becomes so diluted that you can't really get any impact at the end of the day.

I'm wondering about retention, too. You do these programs, get people in the room to engage with STEM and coding. How do you keep them in the room even when there are so many structural forces that would drive them out?

We have some of the brightest minds working on curriculum and creating an engineering mindset. What's really important is to make it fun and to make it engaging and to make it relevant, so connecting what they're learning to their daily lives. And seeing the connection of what they're learning to how they can help solve big, complex problems around the world is, I think, what inspires young people. I think by making those connections to something they can relate to, something that is meaningful to them, something where they can see an immediate impact through their contributions, that's how you keep them engaged.

There is no formula per se because each young person is different in how you engage with them and how they engage with you is going to vary. That's why this problem has been so persistent. So again, we're not claiming that we're just magically going to make those problems go away, but we're going to give this movement a try in a different way by working together versus working separately.

We know that when Black and Latinx engineers go into the tech industry, they're often met with racism and structural barriers that keep them locked out of the highest levels. How do you talk to a young person about that?

I know that doing nothing is not an option. I've been on the other side for most of my career. I'm a Latina electrical engineer, bachelor's, master's in engineering, now i'm going for my Ph.D., so I've been that girl. And so I use a lot of my own experience because I've also been doing practice in STEM outreach for over 25 years, and I know what I was missing.

I have explored and experimented, if you will, with a lot of different approaches. And based on my own experience and academic training, I've come to the conclusion that in order to really break through the persistence of having gender and inequity gaps in STEM, we have to chip away at the systemic barriers and put more focus there than focusing on fixing what we think is broken: people. Our people are not broken, they have the talent, they have the ambition, they have the intelligence, if only the systems and the policies and the institutions are there to support them.

So we have to shift our focus from the people to the systems, and fixing the systems and investing in fixing the systems, because I believe if we do that, then the retention problem goes away and the ability of people to see themselves as engineers and scientists increases. They feel a sense of belonging when they're not being pushed out, when they're not feeling like they're being discriminated against or treated differently or treated poorly. I think of the medical community and how [it] took years for them to embrace gender and different diverse backgrounds. I think we'll get there, it's just engineering and science have been a little bit more resistant to change. But I think the time is now, and I think that the current environment demands it. We can't afford to leave anyone behind.

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