No Boys Allowed: Tackling the Coding Gender Gap

Saint Jean Baptiste High School senior Laura Willson, 17, is putting together a petition in support of adding a computer science class to the course offerings at the New York City school.

After attending a 2013 summer immersion program run by the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code at the Manhattan headquarters of IAC, a media and Internet company, Willson co-founded a Girls Who Code club at her school.

“I’m trying to come together with a petition so I can bring it to the principal and see what she thinks about it because I think eventually my school should have a computer science class,” Willson says. “Since they have a club, why not have a class too?”

Established in 2012 by Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code aims to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering fields by teaching girls computing skills and encouraging them to pursue opportunities in computer science. Supported by public and private partners, Girls Who Code runs seven-week summer immersion programs for girls at companies and university settings across the country. Each program is limited to 20 rising juniors and seniors, selected through an application process. Its clubs are open to sixth- to 12th-grade girls and provide extracurricular instruction during the academic year, coordinated by volunteers who teach from a curriculum provided by the organization and have a background in computer science.

For the past two summers at IAC, students have studied a variety of programming languages, computer concepts and mobile development. Some lessons, for example, covered Scratch, a language developed to teach youth the fundamentals of programming; HTML and CSS for web design; and Python, which can be used to program robots. A Girls Who Code instructor follows a specific curriculum, and IAC provides mentors and speakers from some of its companies, invites industry specialists to give talks and hosts field trips to businesses such as The Daily Beast and Vimeo.

“We’ll try to get speakers that have some sort of career in computer science because it allows the girls to see that as a long-term possibility. It kind of presents clear paths that the girls can envision and aspire to,” says Suzanne Kennedy, IAC’s director, Office of the Chairman.

When IAC evaluated the gender breakdown of its high-tech leadership positions three years ago, it found the number of women in those roles low, similar to at other technology companies, explains Kennedy, who organizes the Girls Who Code program at IAC. Kennedy says the IAC leadership team decided the best way to attract female talent was to focus on young women, who overall were not pursuing computer science degrees, and to cultivate an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.

According the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2013 American Community Survey reveals that of all the full-time, year-round employed civilians 16 years and older, women comprise 27.5 percent of computer and information systems managers. The same data reports that 25.1 percent of all computer and mathematical occupations are filled by women, and within that category, 20.3 percent of computer programmers are female.

The summer immersion program, “[has] almost been kind of like an incubator for an incredibly diverse 21st century female workforce in tech and engineering,” Kennedy observes.

Sophie Houser, a 17-year-old senior at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, participated in the IAC program in 2014. She says her mother had encouraged her to apply, knowing she enjoys math and being creative and that coding intersects those interests.

In addition to acquiring an arsenal of technical skills, participants interact with college students studying computer science and men and women working in the field. Houser says she appreciated working with two teaching assistants who were not too much older and provided perspective on earning their degrees.

Andrea Gonzales, a 17-year-old junior at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, attended the program and says she benefited from her weekly one-on-one conversations with her mentor, a Vimeo project manager who did not learn how to code until college. It was interesting, Gonzales says, “to see how she experienced that learning process later in life and then went on to become a computer programmer and how she moved from that to becoming a project manager.

“It kind of helped me understand how people aren’t set in one career throughout their entire life. They can kind of shift between careers even though they might not expect it.”

During the last two weeks of the program, students designed a final project. Gonzales wanted to develop a video game that promoted a social message. Initially, she thought about shedding light on the hyper-sexualized female characters that tend to be dressed suggestively when compared to male figures in video games. Houser was also interested in drawing attention to a social issue through a video game, so they joined forces to brainstorm ideas.

Houser and Gonzales realized that what began as a joke – a female character throwing tampons at enemy targets – could actually address a relevant and often times taboo subject. Some women are ashamed to talk about a natural process, and women in certain cultures must live in isolation while menstruating because they are viewed as unclean during this time, Houser observes.

While researching, they found tweets from July 2013 commenting on women being banned from bringing tampons or sanitary pads into the state Capitol on the day of a Texas State Senate vote on a bill restricting abortions. Officials confiscated items they thought could be used as projectiles, but permitted guns into the building in accordance with state law.


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