Leveling the Playing Field: How to Get More Women in Tech
This article is part of a three-part series, Solving the Pipeline Problem: How to Get More Women in Tech. Check out Part 1: Girls Don't Know What Computer Science Is and Part 2: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.
The Problem: Girls haven’t coded before
Omosola Obetunde was lucky. Her parents sent her to computer science camp in 8th grade. “I didn’t know it was computer science. I just thought it would be cool to make things.” Seven years later, she’s a computer science major at Stanford University.
Sara Haider’s parents also exposed their daughter to technology early—she learned to program at age 9. “I had no idea I could do this for a job until I took computer science in high school and my teacher told me, ‘there’s a career in this.’” Today, Haider is a software engineer at Twitter, and sees her family’s encouragement as a key influencer in her career.
When I talked to women who have decided to pursue a career in computer science, I was surprised to learn that nearly all of them credited early exposure to programming as the greatest factor in their decision to become engineers. Conversely, they cited a lack of early exposure to computer science as the primary deterrent for women who leave—or never join—the field.
“There’s a competitive showiness in the classroom that intimidates some women who don’t have experience,” says Kathy Cooper, a Master’s candidate in computer science. “Even in intro classes, the guys seem like they’ve been programming before.”
Cooper’s instinct is right: Boys really are more prepared. Although most of the female computer science students I spoke to had taken Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science classes in high school, they’re part of a small minority. According to the most recent reporting from the College Board, female enrollment in AP Computer Science is as low as 14%, making it the most gender-skewed AP class in the country.
And the uncommon ground starts even before that. “There’s an impression that guys start coding when they’re little. Boys play with robots, and girls play with dolls,” says J.J. Liu, a sophomore computer science major. “[It] feels like the guys have been ‘speaking code’ for a long time.”
This sense that boys have a head start creates a high competence threshold for women in computer science, even those who have prior experience in the field.
“Because of the stereotype that women do worse in computer science, a lot of high-achieving women get a B on their first exam and think they’re just not good enough. They feel behind already, so they quit,” laments Obetunde.
Angie Schiavoni, who teaches programming to underserved middle school girls, has observed a similar mindset among her students: “I’ve seen that girls feel like they have to be super good at something to pursue it.”
The Solution: Teach computer science to middle school girls
So, solving the pipeline problem requires giving our girls the confidence they need to go head-to-head with their male classmates. Unless we put our female and male students on equal footing going into college, young women are at risk of perceiving their efforts as a failure, feeling behind, and quitting early to pursue something else.
Key to this is getting middle school girls to think programming is cool. As the College Board stats show, reaching girls in high school is too late—at that point, they’re already opting out of studying programming. Plus, the earlier they start learning, the better their chance of success in the field will be.
“Kids are like sponges with foreign languages, and programming languages are no different,” Schiavoni says. “We can’t leave girls behind in an industry that will be the forefront of our economy for years to come.”
Silicon Alley venture capitalist and father of two Fred Wilson agrees. On his blog, AVC, he openly called for more computer science curriculum in schools: “We continue to teach our kids French but we don't teach them Ruby on Rails. Which do you think will help them more in the coming years?”
Schiavoni’s solution is Code Ed, a program that trains middle school girls to code HTML and build their own websites. “It’s inspiring to see how engaged our students are,” explains Schiavoni. “The girls jump up and down and cheer when they change the background color.”
She wants girls to see programming not as work, but as a creative process to pursue their passions. (Just what kinds of passions do 5th graders pursue? Schiavoni jokes that 90% of her students make Justin Bieber fan sites.)
Say what you will about Bieber, Code Ed works—and girls’ opinions on computer science change dramatically after they go through the program. “I used to hear about boys and men doing all the websites,” said 12-year-old Taiya Edwards, who went through Code Ed’s program in the Bronx. “But now I know that girls can do anything a guy can do.”
When asked if she’ll make another website, she responded with an emphatic, “Yeah! I’ll probably make one with advice for teens.”
Code Ed isn’t the only organization teaching girls about computer science—there are regional groups like Black Girls Code and Code Now, Microsoft’s national Digigirlz program offers high school girls hands-on workshops, camps, and online training in technical topics like building a website, and the UN has launched a Girls in ICT portal. And these are all extremely important efforts. We just need more.
We’re all part of the solution
Some say that teaching girls to code isn’t that important. “Women can always hire someone to code for them,” the skeptics say.
But why should women go find someone else to code for them? Relying on someone else to build your ideas means you need to have funding or be willing to give up equity in your company. Knowing how to program means the difference between spending months finding the right technical co-founder and being able to go home and build your idea tonight.
Plus, making investments to improve the pipeline of women in tech doesn’t just benefit the next generation of girls, but it primes our economy for a boost in innovation. The female Mark Zuckerberg is out there, and it’s within our power to make sure she follows her dream.
In honor of International Women's Day, Facebook created a video to encourage more girls to study computer science. Check it out here.
Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks.
Anneke is a founding executive and leads the business side of Reserve, one of Fast Company's Most Innovative companies of 2016. She joined Reserve from the Google Creative Lab where she led teams building the future of tech. An advisor to NPR and a startup veteran, she is an experienced entrepreneur and storyteller who speaks and writes on topics related to technology and culture. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found online at @annekejong.More from this Author