The U.S. has made great progress over the years in ensuring that half of its population—women—are joining STEM fields. But there is still a long ways to go, as I discovered at this year’s ProMat 2019 show in Chicago.
Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, shocked the ProMat audience with a simple cartoon. It was a scene depicting Barbie, the iconic doll, telling her sister Skipper that she’s designing a video game. To those of us of a certain age, we are glad to see she has stopped brushing her hair and is doing something useful. But just as our hopes rose, they were dashed when she told Skipper that she’ll need Steve and Brian to “turn it into a real game.”
“This is what our young girls are seeing and what they end up believing,” explained Saujani. “And we wonder why they aren’t choosing STEM careers.”
Computing is where the jobs are, Saujani says, and where they will be in the future, but fewer than 1 in 4 computer science graduates today are women. That wasn’t always the case. In 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today, it’s only 24%.
“If we do nothing, in 10 years the percentage of women in computing will decrease to just 22%,” she lamented.
She is, however, on the case. In 2010 she founded Girls Who Code. She was on the campaign trail, as the first Indian-American woman to run for U.S. Congress, and during the obligatory visit to local schools, she noticed the gender gap in computing classes.
So she created a national movement with the goal to “build the largest pipeline of future female engineers in the United States.” To achieve this the organization has developed a variety of hands-on programs. These programs are designed to reach students as far back as elementary school. For the younger potential technical employees, 3rd through 5th grade, there is a free after-school program. Girls in 6th through 12th can take a two-week summer coding class.
There is also a Summer Immersion Program, which is a free seven-week introductory computer science program for 10th-11th grade girls. At the college level there is a program called College Loops.
These programs are paying off. The organization has reached 185,000 girls since 2010.
The group’s alumni are choosing to major in computer science, or related fields, at a rate 15 times the national average. In its annual report, released in April 2018, the group says it is on track to achieve gender parity in entry-level computer science jobs in the United States by 2027.
But more work still needs to be done, says Saujani. She points to something that many women might intuitively know but rarely speak aloud.
“We need to continue to evolve the culture of how we educate our girls,” she says. “There is still a bias in which girls require perfection of themselves and therefore don’t take the chances and risks that boys do. This means they don’t choose fields that they feel they won’t excel in. We have to teach our girls to explore more, fail more and be open to all possibilities.”
Failure is standard mantra in any management program worth its salt. Failure leads to success. But I guess that message has not reached the women who will one day be in management roles. I am hopeful, however, that the learning path, beginning at a young age, that Girls Who Code as well as other female mentoring programs provide will go a long way toward teaching girls that success is often rerouted through failure.
I’m positive that soon Barbie will be depicted giving a presentation of her tech company to an audience of eager venture capitalists.