Math, Science, and Everything Nice
Here's what introducing code to youth girls could make the technology industry made of
Standing in front of the classroom, 12-year-old Cici and her sister Mia shared the interactive murder mystery story they created over a weekend on Scratch, a visual programming language targeted towards children.
Tween girls at the Community Roots Girls Who Code Club in Brooklyn gathered around two of their fellow students and shouted that they wanted to be murderers.
Murderers in a murder mystery game, that is; a game that their peers coded themselves.
After Mia entered the class’ selection in the text box displayed below digital cartoonish animations, it toggled and outlined in red indicating an error. “Okay I probably spelled it wrong, so it won’t work if I spell it wrong,” Mia said. Another student asked why the spelling would affect the outcome, to which their advisor Kellie responded, “Since it’s a code it won’t work unless you type it right.”
After only two meetings these girls, ages 11 through 13 arrived at the third with digital creations to share and the language to describe and engage in discussion about them. However, despite these young girl’s interest and ability to retain and execute beginner computing skills in such a short amount of time, the odds of fulfilling a career in technology lies against them according to statistics.
As of 2017, 16% of female students graduated with STEM related degrees, and only 30 percent of women over the age of 30 decide to stay in the technology industry because of ‘workplace culture’ according to The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
This leaves only 25% of women who currently attain a job in a STEM related field of work according to The Office of The Chief Economist’sWomen In STEM: 2017 Update. It’s because of these statistics that organizations like Girls Who Code, amongst many others trying to bridge the gender gap in tech, exist.
Since the decline of women in tech beginning around 1984, the gender gap has been theorized, analyzed, and researched. Those who follow the issue attribute the low percentage of women in technology-oriented careers to culture, general gender bias, and others who focus more on the issue from an educational standpoint.
Girls Who Code is a growing non-profit organization that has dedicated itself to bridging the gender gap in tech since 2012. By offering summer immersion programs as well as after school programs to interest and provide girls in middle and high school with computer language skills, Girls Who Code has reached up to 40,000 girls in all 50 U.S. states, and doesn’t plan to stop there.
“We don’t just want to do educational programs. We want to do books, and we want to do T.V. programs, and we want to think about all of the different things that can really impact young women and help them see that this is something that they can do,” Leah Gilliam, the VP of Education and Product Development at Girls Who Code said.
Gilliam notes that while studies have shown that STEM and computer science are interesting, open, and feel acceptable to pre-teenage girls, what begins to happen around middle and high school years is the sort of cultural and societal conditioning that starts to take over and discourage them.
“Suddenly it’s like boys are playing with computers and girls are playing with dolls and this happened in the 80s… Girls are supposed to be the care-ers the nurturers, it’s more important to be pretty than smart, it’s more important to stay pretty and clean than get dirty, to do anything with your hands and get dirty,” data journalist and founder of NYC Ruby Women meetup Chrys Wu said.
Once these young girls enter college the unconscious bias mentioned by Wu seems to streamline itself into higher education where only 16% of females in the U.S. graduate with STEM-related degrees.
Cindy Royal, director of the Media Innovation Lab at Texas State University, has followed this paradigm since the early 2000s, and since has tried to create changes in Texas States Journalism and Mass Communication department that would encourage more females towards tech-related degrees.
In August of 2016 Royal launched a new Digital Media major in her department that has allowed her to study different approaches to attracting women to tech-based programs. The major currently has 216 students enrolled, 50% of whom are female. Right now most tech based degrees typically only see 24% according to studies done by The BRAID Initiative.
Students in the degree are required to take a first year web design course. From there they can explore further interactive coding courses, mobile development, virtual reality courses, advanced social media, and analytics. This program is offered within the Journalism and Mass Communication department, not the computer science department, therefore, it’s ideology is rooted in storytelling, a factor Royal sees prominent in this program’s heightened female presence.
“The storytelling is context—teaching technology in a storytelling context but then the support, having small classes, having new way to teach the skills,” Royal said.
The disparity of females in tech-related degrees in college according Royal comes from a lack of exposure to it in early education within the schooling systems “so when they get to college we have to do the catch up thing… but absolutely if we get more of the technology skills, if we get more little girls coding it could be making the difference,” and this is what an organization like Girls Who Code is trying to implement.
Back in the classroom at Community Roots the students discussed why they felt bringing more women into the tech space was important:
By the end of their semester the class will have created a website which they chose to revolve around fashion. Their sites subcategories will include information on the history of fashion, animals in fashion, and equality of fashion.
Girls who code currently has about 5,000 college-aged alumni in their six-year history who are now pursuing a major or minor in CS related degrees. They track that their rates of women enrolling in these degrees are 15 percent higher than the national average.
“Our idea is just to flood the next generation workforce with a completely diverse group of young women who have a number of different interests who come from a number of different places, they might be interested in social change they might be interested in games, they may only be interested in art, medicine… people are combining computer science with other things that they’re interested in and that is really what we’re seeing to be one of the ways that we anticipate really impacting the future workforce.” Gilliam said.