Girls Who Code Filling the Gender Gap in Technology

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 4, 2016
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​Technology jobs are experiencing some of the fastest growth in the U.S., and the Department of Labor projects that 1.4 million jobs will be available in related fields by 2020. However, at the rate graduates are obtaining bachelor's degrees in computer science in the U.S., only about 30 percent of those jobs are likely to be filled, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Additionally, the number of computer science graduates who are women has dropped from 37 percent in 1984 to 18 percent in 2016, according to the center.

There's a need for people with tech skills, but "it's not simply a matter of increasing the pool of tech talent. We have to be conscious of what that pool looks like," said Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. She was a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management's Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition in October.

"We can train a diverse generation of females and people of color who are going to create solutions" to problems using technology.

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Girls' interest in computer science drops between the ages of 13 and 17, Saujani said. Once they lose interest at that age, they will likely not regain it when they are in college and preparing for a career.

In 2012, Saujani founded Girls Who Code to help fill that gap and create a pipeline of skilled talent. The initiative started with 20 girls in New York and has grown to include 40,000 girls in 50 states.

Today Girls Who Code is made up of two programs—after-school exploratory clubs for girls in grades six through 12 and summer immersion classes for high school juniors and seniors. The clubs meet for two hours every week during the school year, membership is free, and computers and Internet access are provided. The immersion classes meet at leading tech companies for seven weeks during the summer.

Sixty-five percent of club participants say they are considering a major or minor in computer science because of their experience; 90 percent of those in the immersion classes say they plan to major or minor in computer science because of the program, according to the Girls Who Code website.

Sixty companies—including Accenture, Cover Girl, Disney, Facebook, Lockheed Martin, Prudential, Twitter, and Verizon—have pledged to hire Girls Who Code alumni.

One HR professional at the conference thanked Saujani for her efforts, noting that her own difficulty filling tech jobs for her employer has caused her to rely heavily on workers with H1-B visas because she cannot find U.S. workers with the technical skills her employer seeks.

Origins of Girls Who Code

Saujani is a graduate of Yale Law School, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the University of Illinois. She worked as an attorney in the financial services sector and is the author of Women Who Don't Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way (New Harvest, 2013).

In 2010 she became the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. During her campaign she visited local schools, where she observed the gender gap in computer classes and was inspired to form her company.

Accolades for her work include being named one of the Most Powerful Women Changing the World by Forbes magazine and the 2014 Innovator of the Year by the Wall Street Journal's WSJ Magazine.

"You cannot be what you cannot see," Saujani pointed out. "Exposing [girls] to role models is really important," so the program gives participants the opportunity to meet computer technologists from all walks of life.

About half of participants overall are in Title I schools, and about half are black or Latina. Saujani recalled one girl, in California, who rode two trains and two buses to get to a coding program. In Boston, a Girls Who Code club is housed in the basement of a homeless shelter.

"There are girls from homeless shelters sitting next to a girl [from] a private school" in some programs, she said. Regardless of their backgrounds, they "are so disadvantaged when it comes to coding education." After seven weeks, though, they're equally competitive in landing a job at a top-level company such as Facebook, 

The clubs and classes also teach participants to value taking on challenges over being perfect. A drive for perfection often holds girls back from taking risks, she said. However, "coding is an iterative process. It's all about trial and error, so when our girls learn how to code, they learn how to be imperfect. They walk out of our classroom learning to be brave" and to take risks.

Saujani encouraged employers to get involved as Girls Who Code sponsors through grassroots activities such as serving as speakers or organizing a field trip to tech companies. Their involvement is an investment in their future labor pool, she said.

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