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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

A Million Girls: Coming to a Computer Science Class Near You

I sit quietly in the corner as 20 students work diligently in pairs, writing Python code on black laptops. Their instructor walks around the room unpacking the robots they’re programming and announces to the group, “Just so you know, this assignment is the same as a late-semester project for a Bryn Mawr computer science course.” The students are unfazed.

What’s surprising about this scene is that the students are still in high school, and they’ve been coding for less than two weeks. Oh yeah, and everyone in the room is female.

It’s two weeks into the eight-week inaugural summer program of Girls Who Code—where 20 girls from underserved high schools representing the five boroughs of New York City learn to code JavaScript and Android apps. Almost all the girls are racial minorities, and I notice at least three of them wear headscarves. They all wear looks of determination as they work on their robots. They want to make time to practice Photoshop before the end of the day.

Is “Girls Who Code” the Answer?

This program is aptly named, since it turns out there aren’t actually very many girls who code. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, less than 14% of computer science degrees are awarded to women.

I’ve written here before about the pipeline problem for women in tech, emphasizing the need to teach young girls technical skills. I said we need real solutions, and so I’d like to celebrate achievements to that end.

Created by former New York congressional candidate Reshma Saujani and directed by ex-Jumo Managing Director Kristen Titus, Girls Who Code is an extremely lean organization with big goals. They’ve estimated it will take 4 million girls learning to code to reach gender parity in the computer science field by the end of the decade, and they’ve committed to doing their part: using the Girls Who Code program to train 1 million girls by 2020.

While Girls Who Code isn’t the first program targeting school-age girls for technical training, it is one of the first to gain national traction. With a boost from corporate donors like Google, eBay, and GE, the young organization has real promise. In fact, it was the proud recipient of Twitter’s first philanthropic donation.

Making Real Investments in the Girls

But support for Girls Who Code doesn’t just come in the form of dollars. Tech industry leaders have also donated their time, teaching and mentoring the girls during the summer program. The day I visited, the girls had just visited the offices of e-commerce darling Gilt Groupe and were gushing about the experience. “There were so many women there!” said one girl, describing their tour of the Gilt office. “It was awesome.”

Rebecca Garcia, co-founder of Coder Dojo, came in to tell the girls about her experience in the tech industry. A girl piped up that she’d actually been to Coder Dojo before and that she learned to make an HTML website at one of its weekend workshops. “I’m thinking of making a coding club at my school,” she said excitedly.

Fast-forward three months, to now, and Girls Who Code clubs are an important catalyst for expanding the program into the school year. Not only do the graduates continue their education every Sunday with workshops, but several of the girls have started Girls Who Code clubs at their schools. The clubs are a big part of reaching Saujani’s goal of educating 1 million girls because they’re a platform from which any girl can access curriculum on her own after school. “There are only 1,500 computer science teachers in the country,” explains Saujani. “The girls are already comfortable learning online—we just have to build something self-sufficient.” Saujani hopes to launch 50 Girls Who Code clubs by the end of next year.

So what has the Girls Who Code team learned so far about teaching technology curriculum to girls? Saujani laughs. “The biggest feedback from the girls was to make it harder—they want even more challenging curriculum. So that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Looking Forward to 2020

At the Girls Who Code gala on Monday night, the 20 graduates of the inaugural program presented their final projects. The results included a mobile app to help disabled New Yorkers navigate the city and another location-based app to find the nearest resources for homeless people. Manhattan-based high school senior Cora Frederick declared her intention to take the tech world by storm when she presented her plan to use an algorithm to detect the difference between benign and malignant tumors.

The Girls Who Code team also revealed its goals for 2013: Expand the eight-week summer program into 7-10 new cities. They hope to tap into the existing tech ecosystem in metros like Detroit and Miami.

Saujani, who is running for New York City Public Advocate in 2013, sees the mission behind Girls Who Code as an ongoing commitment: “This is something I will work on for the rest of my life.” But Saujani and Titus can’t change the face of women in technology on their own—here’s how you can help.

Donate Money

Girls Who Code is looking for foundation support, but Saujani says that small personal donations of just $10 per month go a long way toward supporting the advancement of women in tech. Girls Who Code is a 501(c)3, so if you’re looking for a charitable deduction before the end of the year, head over to

Donate Equipment

In the hardware-intensive world the organization works in, Girls Who Code depends on in-kind donations of space and equipment from tech leaders like AppNexus, which hosted the inaugural class. “There is a huge range in access,” explains Saujani. “We gave half of our girls computers to take with them because they didn’t have access to technology at home.”

Donate Time

In a model that depends heavily on intellectual capital, the availability of good teachers can be the bottleneck. If you have teaching or computer science skills, consider connecting with Girls Who Code to lend your brain to its endeavors.

Photo courtesy of Anneke Jong.