Removing the Stigma Faced by ‘Girls’ Who Code

girls coding“The pool of applicants would have been twice as big had there been an equal number of women in the field … By shutting girls out of computer science classes early on, we are limiting the number of people going into the field and hurting businesses that need that talent,” said Lida Zlatic, founder of ClassTracks. When her company was looking for a junior developer to join the team, they struggled to find qualified applicants (male or female).

The numbers are dismal. Girls Who Code’s West Coast director, Salleha Chaudhry, cites recent data that shows that 74 percent of girls in high school report an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), but only 4 percent choose to major in STEM subjects in college. While 37 percent of women majored in computer science degrees in 1984, just 18 percent graduated with a computer science degree in 2012. Of those who do receive a degree in computer science, only 20.6 percent get a job in a STEM field. By 2020, Chaudhry reports, there will be 1.4 million technology jobs that need to be filled, and not nearly enough applicants to fill them.

Although these statistics are grim — and recent news stories seem only to focus on the sexism and discrimination found in male-dominated, STEM workplaces — many women have found fulfillment in computer science and see a brighter future.

Why should girls pursue computer science?

In addition to increasing the number of qualified applicants for jobs, pursuing STEM careers provides more stability for women, according to Play Works Studio founder, Adriana Moscatelli.

“Women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent
 more than women with non-STEM jobs,” Moscatelli said. “Purely from a practical perspective, one 
can say that women who pursue careers in science and math fields have 
better career prospects.”

In addition to better pay, the pay gap between women and men is smaller in STEM jobs.
 Jobs in computer programming are growing twice as fast as the national average job growth. Women who pursue these jobs will have better job prospects.

Why girls?

Does gender really make a difference? Is it important to bring females into STEM, or just more people? Do girls bring something unique to computer science? Kim Vermeer, a front- and back-end developer with Bynder, feels that gender isn’t important, and an emphasis on pushing girls specifically toward STEM careers is the wrong way to go. “It actually isn’t important for women to pursue jobs in computer science. We don’t do things differently … Girls shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to work in this industry. Society can show everyone how fun computer science can be, whether you are a girl or a boy.”

Overwhelmingly, though, the consensus is that women do, indeed, bring something to the (computer) table.

Taylor Murray, lead developer for Call Tools, has noticed a difference between the lone female Web developer on his team, and his male team members. “She works more in a thoughtful way. She codes in a way where it is almost like she is thinking of the problems we are going to encounter. There is a sensibility to her that I don’t encounter with male coders. It is a pleasure to work with someone with these characteristics. I wish there were more girls in the Web development world.”

Dr. Nicki Washington, an African-American woman with a Ph.D in computer science, believes that “girls can bring more creativity and collaboration to projects.” She has observed that they are also the stronger students in her middle-school courses, but they need to be encouraged to speak up and share their ideas. “The first few times, some are shy and hesitant to speak out. However, within a matter of a few months, I’ve witnessed the confidence levels build tremendously, and most of them take on leadership roles in the class.”

And, just as when the conversation turns to the importance of diversity and women’s perspective in the boardroom and the C-suite, it is critical in STEM, as well.

Moscatelli said: “As in any field, having diversity of opinions and perspectives brings
 innovation and produces better products, services and solutions that would
 otherwise not be possible.”

Changing perception

In some form or another, many agree that tech fields, especially computer science, have a perception problem. Sarah Gray, a software engineer at PromptWorks, is not the only woman to cast a different light on computer science. “Computer science is a social and creative pursuit, but it has this stigma of being a dry and technical task.” While many think of “geeky” boys at the mention of computer science and coding, several women described coding as creative, challenging and rewarding. Changing the perception of tech, making it more interesting and relevant to everyday life, and highlighting its reach into many aspects of life would go a long way toward overcoming one of the biggest obstacles to attracting both boys and girls to computer science.

Adriana Herrera, founder of Grand Intent, said: “Women should pursue jobs in computer science if they are attracted to
 industries that are constantly evolving and there is always something new
 to learn. Additionally, computer science allows the flexibility to 
touch any ‘subject’ because everything is online and needs some sort of Web
 application (finance, fashion, sustainability, gaming, etc.). Women who
 want to leave the door open to a number of opportunities should pursue computer
 science.”

Sarah Franklin, senior director of developer marketing at Salesforce, and Hemma 
Prafullchandra, chief technology officer and senior VP of products at 
HyTrust, agreed with Herrera.

Prafullchandra said, “Computer science and information technology are becoming integral to our
 way of life. There are very few jobs that don’t involve some use of 
information technology. As such, women should pursue this field as they can
 fundamentally shape how we live as a society and how the next generation can 
leverage and benefit from all the innovations.”

Franklin of Salesforce went further.

“Technology is shaping our world and our future. And it has never been
 more accessible. Technical careers have evolved from being something that 
is necessary and logical to being something that is accessible, creative
 and stimulating. Women have a perspective that is not just
 about making the world more productive with technology, but about making 
the world a better place with technology.”

This perspective is much-needed in a world fraught with the dangers of climate change, rising oceans, worsening storms and growing inequality.

Encouragement and support

If we can change perception, how else can we encourage girls to become interested in computer science? Recurring suggestions included earlier exposure to computer science (beginning in middle school), strong role models and mentors, and positive media depictions of women’s accomplishments in tech, along with support and encouragement.

Dr. Nicki Washington grew up with a math-major mom who worked at IBM in the 1980s, so she was exposed to not only a strong role model in a tech field at an early age, but she also saw all the trials her mom encountered and felt she was better prepared to deal with them when she entered the tech world.

Herrera of Grand Intent underscored the positive aspect and accomplishments of women in tech. “Girls need role models to look up 
to. Society can push these women and their stories forward so girls have 
examples they can identify with.”

There are several organizations that are focusing on exposing girls and women to coding, encouraging their interest, and supporting their curiosity and problem-solving skills.

Girls Who CodeWomen Who CodeBlack Girls CodeGeek Girls Academy and Ladies Learning Code are just some of the groups whose popularity is growing exponentially. Girls Who Code has more than 200 clubs nationally and is committed to supporting girls not just during their program, but all the way until they take a job in tech. Women Who Code has a membership of over 25,000 and a presence in 15 countries around the globe. Black Girls Code teaches girls from underrepresented communities about computer programming and technology.

Traditional education outlets are also seeing the importance of technology awareness and skills.

In 2013, Beaver Country Day School became the first school in the U.S. to incorporate coding into all of its subjects. This type of level playing field for both boys and girls could certainly go a long way toward changing perception, exploring the scope of tech in numerous subjects, making tech relevant every day and effecting widespread change.

And, maybe all this effort is paying off.

Several women had stories of discrimination, discouragement and alienation, but a few reported no such issues. Most recently, Emily, a senior at Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington, recounted no negativity in her experience so far. “To be honest, I haven’t encountered any obstacles. Everyone in my life, from my parents to my teachers to my friends, has been very supportive of my studies and goals.”

It is never too late to embrace tech. Nicole Rose, senior applications engineer at Lyons Consulting Group, is a self-taught developer with a degree in music.

“I always think that once a woman gets a taste of the strength that being involved in tech gives you, there starts a journey toward freedom and a sense of self-mastery in one’s life like no other.”

image credit: Wolfgang Lonien, Flickr creative commons

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.