Less than 20 percent of the high school students who took the AP computer science exam in 2013 were girls, and just 12 percent of computer science graduates are women. (Even fewer are women of color.) Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor points to a projected 1.4 million jobs in computer science in 2020, of which only 400,000 can be filled by U.S. computer science grads. Girls could provide much-needed talent, if only we could just get them hooked on coding.
And that’s where Girl Who Code, a non-profit aiming to close the gender gap in technology and engineering fields, comes in. With the goal of providing computer science education and exposure to 1 million girls by 2020, Girls Who Code has launched more than 160 Girls Who Code clubs in public schools, libraries, and community-based organizations and expanded its Summer Immersion Program to 19 cities. Recently, its founder, Reshma Saujani, talked to NEA Today about how educators can help girls be ready to succeed in those jobs.
Q: You talk a lot about girls’ fear of failure and how it must be overcome for them to fully participate in computer science. What is this fear of failure about, and how can teachers and other educators help their students to conquer it?
A: If you ask girls about computer science, they’ll say, ‘it’s really hard. I could never do that.’ But if you ask boys, they’ll say, ‘that’s easy! I can do it.’ We’re taught these responses at a early age — we want our boys to play hard, rough and tumble, and we want our girls to go slow, be dainty, be more careful.
It’s both very subconscious and unconscious: girls should not fail, not solicit rejection, not take risks.
None of this is genetic. It’s all about what we teach and teachers are very key in creating environments where failure is okay. In computer science, you try and fail, you try and fail, and you try again.
Q: We understand many Girls Who Code (GWC) clubs pair teachers with community volunteers — for example, the GWC club at Needham High School in Massachusetts is run by two women, a math teacher and a software engineer. They encourage girls to work in small groups, coding games and puzzles. And they bring candy! Is this collaborative, more social approach typical?
A: I think that’s very typical. The clubs are really about taking the curriculum and getting the girls engaged and inspired about computer science. The collaboration is key. We always have a teacher in the classroom with a volunteer from the community — and often the volunteer is helping the teacher gain skills too.
At this age, many girls just don’t know what this is about. They don’t know what coding is, or what is is to be a computer scientist. But at this age they can change what they’re passionate about. Ninety percent of the girls who go through our summer immersion program leave and want to do computer science, and 90 percent of them wanted to do something else before.
Think about this: Seventy percent of the 1.4 million jobs in computer science will go unfilled because of a lack of computer science college graduates. We can turn that around really quickly if we get girls interested.
Q: How critical are teachers to making that happen? The Needham High mentor is a math teacher who received mid-career training to also teach computer science. She loves it. Do we need more of that? And how can teachers be supported in that process?
A: The movement will fail if we don’t increase the teacher pool. We have tons of interest among schools wanting Girls Who Code on their campuses, but the more we grow the more we need to find teachers who are both willing and have the skills to do it.
If we have a teacher shortage, we’ll never solve the engineering crisis.
We really need to update their skills, and it’s not that hard. It’s not something that, if you’re trying to pick it up in your 40s, 50s, and 60s it’s impossible. It’s possible! It’s about sharing knowledge, and we do have volunteers who will help our teachers in our classrooms.
Q: Are there other obstacles standing the way of expanding Girls Who Code?
A: There is a real technology crisis in terms of hardware. We can’t go to a school that doesn’t have computers, or doesn’t have functional wi-fi. That’s a huge problem, especially in poor communities.
We also need companies to give their people time off so that they can travel to the places where we need them. It might take a volunteer an hour to get to the Bronx from Manhattan. But if we really want to close the technology gap, we need to get people there. And funding… We don’t charge schools or students, so we need to find more companies willing to fund us.
Most of our applications are filled out by educators. There is a lot of passion for this among teachers and principals, and there is no shortage of girls who are interested. There is no shortage of us recognizing that this is where the jobs are, and our girls have to be trained for this.
It’s just a question of change.