There’s growing and well-founded concern about the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math fields, particularly when it comes to women of color. Women’s participation in computer science careers has actually decreased since the 1980s. Right now, about 20 percent of all programmers are women and while women make up 57 percent of undergraduates they represent only 18 percent of the computer science majors.
Meanwhile, a STEM Connector report from 2012-2013 predicts that 8.65 million jobs in 2018 will be in STEM fields. That growth makes the gender disparity numbers especially troubling.
Why is there a gender gap in computer science?
There are a lot of reasons, but EJ Jung, associate professor of computer science at the University of San Francisco says two of the biggest are social pressure and a misconceptions about what computer science jobs are like. “Girls are not very cool if they want to program — if they are interested in computer games — and that social pressure definitely affects their major choices,” Jung said on KQED’s Forum program.
Girls often hold the misperception that programming jobs aren’t social or collaborative and that they will be stuck in front of a computer alone if they go into computer science. There are especially few women programmers of color, a fact Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, partially attributes to the high costs of extracurricular coding camps. “Over half of our students don’t have laptops or computers at home,” Bryan said. Her work illustrates the very real digital divide that still exists in the U.S. and which prevents less affluent families from taking advantage of free online coding resources as well. “There is still a very real barrier that we are working against.” She added that many girls of color don’t have clear role models or mentors within their community to encourage them along the computer science path.
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Yet another problem is the “elbowing out” that boys do in computer science classes. Jung said that because boys are often exposed to computers and coding earlier than girls, they like to show off what they know in college computer science classes. That can make girls in the class feel like they are so far behind it isn’t worth trying to catch up, but Jung said that’s almost never true.
HOW TO GRAB GIRLS’ INTEREST
Introduce girls to coding in middle school or grade school. “By high school it’s almost impossible for us to recruit girls of color into computer coding,” said Bryant. Social pressures on girls increase in high school and they have often already made up their minds about their interests and direction. Many organizations working with youth focus on middle school aged girls.
It’s also important to begin creating a community of women coders. “What I’ve realized in doing Girl Develop It is we’re creating a community of people,” said Pamela Fox, co-organizer of the San Francisco Chapter of Girl Develop It, a series of workshops to teach women about web development. She says the workshops offer education, but also a community of people to continue collaborating with, to draw inspiration and support from and to have as friends. She even recommended that women already working as programmers might seek out such a community to help provide support if they have no other female mentors.
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Girls should understand that coding is creative. Fox likes to emphasis the incredible power of creation that coding can put in the hands of young women. “All you need is a computer and your head and in two hours you can come up with something that no one has ever thought of and post it to the internet,” she said. She and other coding mentors have also found that girls often like story-based games and role play, which can all be incorporated into the gaming and coding world.
Women programmers become mentors for girls. Girls need to see that there are cool, smart women in these jobs and they’re enjoying them. Women of color especially have power to inspire girls who might not otherwise see someone that looks like them in STEM fields. “In the back tech community we joke about the unicorn effect, something that’s very rare,” Bryant said. “A black programmer becomes the unicorn because it’s something you don’t see often.”
Women can start to feel isolated in the workplace fairly easily and without a mentor to talk with they might leave the field. “We need women throughout the whole pipeline, to mentor back for young women today,” Bryant said. Women should also recognize that programming can be a very flexible job, making it ideal for driven intellectuals who want families too.
KEEPING WOMEN IN COMPUTER SCIENCE
A lot of energy is going into recruiting girls to become coders because of the expected growth in the industry going forward. But women already working in computer science are leaving. “We call it leaky pipe,” Jung said. She said in academia, 20 percent of associate computer science professors are women, but only 10 percent make it to become full professors. A woman programmer who called into the talk show explained that she gave up working at a start-up because she wanted to have a family and couldn’t sustain the hours. Another said she left because she had no support dealing with issues that arose around gender in the workplace.
Women can start to feel isolated in the workplace fairly easily and without a mentor to talk, with they might leave the field. “We need women throughout the whole pipeline, to mentor back for young women today,” Bryant said. Women should also recognize that programming can be a very flexible job since programmers only need their computers. That can make it ideal for driven intellectuals who want families too.