Where did all the women go?
That’s the question being asked at Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and other tech companies, as well as in university computer labs. Over the past three decades, the number of women involved in coding and programming has plummeted. In 1984, 37 percent of all computer science college graduates were women. Today, that figure stands at a mere 12 percent.
It’s tempting to blame underfunded schools, which lack the resources to keep pace with staffing and new technology, as one cause for the decline. Resistance to curriculum changes also come into play. But those issues do not take into account a larger societal problem that plagues girls specifically—namely, they are often discouraged from pursuing an interest in coding and programming.
According to studies, 74 percent of girls in middle school express interest in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). But by senior year of high school, just 0.3 percent select computer science as a college major.
“There are some very strict stereotypes within the traditional education system,” says Katy Campen, lead instructor at Tennessee Code Academy’s 100 Girls of Code initiative. “Just saying ‘girls probably aren’t good at math’ or ‘they would rather take English classes’ or something like that puts them down before they’ve even tried.”
Fortunately, initiatives like 100 Girls of Code are addressing the issue. In daylong workshops held in various cities around Tennessee, and co-sponsored by Scripps Networks Interactive, girls ages 12-18 get the opportunity to learn introductory programming skills. They create their own rudimentary websites and use a simple app developed by MIT to design their own online games.
Fourteen-year-old Inara Abernathy is one of those girls. “Making the game was the most fun part of the day,” she says. Since camp, Abernathy has continued to refine her design and claims an interest in coding as a potential future job.
“The goal of 100 Girls is to raise awareness of computing,” says Campen, who taught the June 30 workshop in Knoxville. “We want to specifically encourage Tennessee females at a younger age so they get a jumpstart and hopefully pursue an education or career in a programming or a technology field.”
A freelance programmer herself, Campen majored in advertising at the University of Tennessee before later studying programming. She offered her own perspective on working in such a male-dominated field. “A lot of times you can be placed in these characterized roles,” she says. “I’ve worked on projects where I’d automatically be put in charge of the design or the aesthetics because I’m a female. But I’m not very good at that. I’m better at the actual programming and the application of the language.”
Some big name schools like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Washington are changing their engineering and computer science programs to become more female-friendly.
Another organization working to bridge the gender gap is Girls Who Code, a multi-city program with a goal of exposing 1 million young women to computer science by 2020. The organization recognizes the challenges women face who want to join computing fields—be it lack of education or lack of support or mentoring—and works to remedy those problems. Girls Who Code clubs launched in 2013 in Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco; the programs cater to girls in sixth through twelfth grades during the academic year.
Other groups like Black Girls CODE, a San Francisco based group, has worked since 2011 to “increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields.” As of 2011, women of color represented less than 3% of those working in technology fields.
Colleges are joining the party as well. Some big name schools like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Washington are changing their engineering and computer science programs to become more female-friendly. Some are dropping requirements around prior programming experience for computer science majors and providing more female academic support through mentoring programs. Men often have access to informal support networks from colleagues that women lack.
College students are smart to jump on the coding train. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates there will be 1.4 million job openings for computer-related occupations in the next ten years. Of the STEM fields, computer science and computer engineering have the highest median earnings for recent college graduates without advanced degrees.
Campen is optimistic about women getting into the field and about how the trend will benefit everyone. “Each day we have tons and tons of problems as a society and we need a very diverse group of people to solve them,” she says. “We need everyone—females and males—to help generate the creativity to get it done.”