The words “computer science” often conjured up the image of an antisocial guy sitting in a dark room, eyes trained to a glowing computer screen, fingers rapidly speaking a language only few people knew. However, how fair was it to peg an entire profession to a single gender?
The numbers admittedly looked bleak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2011, women only made up 25 percent of the computing workforce. Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock, one of the founders of Hacker School, claimed that in his experience, the pervading stereotype had unfortunately become that “it was more socially acceptable for twelve or thirteen-year-old boys to sit around on the computer for hours on end but less so for twelve or thirteen-year-old girls.”
Image c/o Tech Cocktail
Wendy Hawkins, Executive Director of Intel Foundation and Director of Philanthropy for Intel Corporation, believed that in order to combat those stereotypes, it was important to expose young girls to computers and technology before “they absorbed all of the biases of the culture that surrounded them.” Through Intel’s Computer Clubhouse Network, an afterschool program that provided digital technology to underserved communities, Hawkins discovered how “the girls were reluctant…to duke it out with [the boys]” in order to get a turn at the keyboard. As a way to address the problem, many of the Clubhouses instituted girls only days called Hear Our Voices. Hawkins said that by giving the girls some “some shelter time” away from the boys, the girls eventually gained enough confidence to assertively tell their male peers “now it’s my turn, I get to play.”
Founded by Reshma Sauja and financially backed by Twitter, Google, General Electric, and eBay, Girls Who Code was another organization that aimed to educate and inspire young women to enter careers in technology and engineering. In July, 20 female teenagers participated in the organization’s first 8 week workshop, which included being paired with professional mentors and attending classes on programming language, web design, mobile app development, and robotics. The organization hopes to eventually extend the program to other cities.
In terms of higher education, Harvey Mudd College was an inspiring role model. The college once had very few females majoring in computer science, but now nearly 40 percent of those degrees went to women. Part of that success was due to the fact that a few years ago, in order to provide a broader and more socially relevant view of computer science, the department decided to completely overhaul the required introductory course. Professor Libeskind-Hadas, chair of the department, admitted that the course, which was previously taught in Java, mainly concentrated on the “nuts and bolts of programming.” Now taught in the more accessible language of Python, the students spent less time talk about the details of syntax and had more creative latitude to explore programming though applications such as cryptography, games, 3D graphics, and robotics. The course was now also divided into two sections: one for students with no computer science background and another for with students with some experience. Professor Libeskind-Hadas believed that the program started attracting more women because the introductory course revealed how programming can be applied to different endeavors. He also believed that by separating the course into two sections, it leveled the playing field based on experience.
Based in New York City, Hacker School, a full-time three-month school for programmers, found that one way to even out the mostly male dominated environment was to provide incentives for women to apply. This year, the school partnered with Etsy to provide need based scholarships to women. Prior to these scholarships, only about 5 percent of the applicants were women. After the scholarships were announced for the summer 2012 batch, the majority of the applicants became women. The school accepted 23 qualified female candidates, which accounted for 45 percent of the total batch. Bergson-Shilcock stated, “One of the nice things about having gender parity is that you can forget about that whole stereotype threat and the feeling of having to represent your entire gender [because] you’re in a room where there are other 20 women around.”
Ruthe Farmer, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), claimed that it was not only important to provide more opportunities for women in the industry but to also foster a community among the women. That was why Farmer believed so strongly in the NCWIT’s Award for Aspirations in Computing. In Farmer’s words, the award “identified high potential high school girls nationwide and recognized them for their aspirations and their potential.” As a result of the award, the girls were pulled into an online community of peers, which provided support and camaraderie amongst the aspiring young women. Farmer believed that fostering such a network gave “girl a direct connection and visible pathway” to exploring which colleges to attend and what type of companies they could end up working for in the future.
By 2018, there will be 1.4 million computer science related job openings expected in the U.S. “We all recognize that we need more talent in this field and if you’re only acquiring that talent from half the population, you’re missing this enormous talent pool,” said Professor Libeskind-Hadas.