“I look around the room in my computer science classes, and there will be maybe two girls to every five guys. It’s not inclusive, and it’s not as collaborative.”
This observation from Tommy, a computer science student at the University of Michigan, is specific, but unfortunately not unique. In 2015, only 18% of women received degrees in computer science – with the percentage for women of color even lower.
Apurva, a computer science student at UCLA and incoming Associate Product Manager at Google, validated these statistics, saying, “There are times when I’m the only girl in a meeting, or the only girl in a classroom. It used to be really intimidating because the boys around me were much more vocal and confident about their coding experience.
As the rate of women entering computer science professions continues to decline, it becomes clear that women are being deterred from pursuing these fields of study somewhere along the way in their educational experience.
Last year, a software engineer at Google proclaimed that the reason for the lack of women in computer science was due to their biological nature, where a “strong interest in people” made them less suited to be coders. While women and men do have slight neurological differences, this claim does not hold true in any way. In computer science classes in India, Malaysia, and Nigeria, women make up at least 50% of the classes. Oman, Mozambique, Algeria, Costa Rica, Vietnam, and other developing countries have ratios of women in computer science of 30% or higher.
So, if we cannot attribute the gender gap that persists in the United States to biological differences, then what is deterring women from coding? One piece of the puzzle lies in the way we raise girls and boys.
“Girls are less encouraged to pursue STEM,” says Apurva. “Look at our toys, at Girl Scout badges, at all these levels of our childhood development.”
It’s true. When sifting through products on Amazon, the dolls, arts and crafts, and kitchen playsets are heavily marketed to girls, while the lego sets, science experiments, and building blocks are marketed to boys. This differentiation is changing as we become more aware of its inherent sexism, but it persists nonetheless.
Additionally, once a woman begins working as a computer scientist or engineer, the environment fostered at these high-tech companies is often alienating and harmful, and the wage gap is ever-present with men being offered a higher salary than women 63% of the time for the same position at the same company. The “Boys Club” of Silicon Valley reigns, and women are often left feeling like their voices and opinions are not respected equally. The quit rate of women at tech companies is more than double that of men: 42% vs. 17%.
It becomes the responsibility for the men in charge (women make up just 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies) to foster an environment that is inclusive, tolerant, and collaborative. And this is a GOOD THING. As Apurva explained, “In the workplace, you get an echo chamber of people tossing around the same ideas because they have the same background and experience shaped by the same gender, race, and socioeconomic status. This can stifle ideas because everyone is agreeing with each other.” Diversity is required for the creation of good ideas and great products, and diversity cannot exist in an environment that is exclusive and toxic.
Now, how do we begin to go about combatting this widening gender gap?
We are not without hope. Program such as Girls who Code, Kode with Klossy, Girl Develop It, and the increasing number of Societies for Women Engineers and Women in STEM organizations are working to bring more women into the world of technology, making the community of female engineers and computer scientists that much more welcoming and accessible to all.
Surprisingly, girls are most interested in science and technology before entering middle school and high school. Tommy teaches an all-girls coding class at the Mill Valley Code Club, made up of girls between 1st and 5th grades. “I was amazed by the courage and drive that these young girls have to pursue computer science,” he said. “Simply put, they are fearless. They haven’t had the opportunity yet to be affected by any stigmas or stereotypes associated with careers in technology, so it is a fantastic way of getting them excited about computer science.”
Apurva teaches a group of young female students on a weekly basis in Santa Monica as part of the Girls Who Code program (over 90,000 students across the country!). To sum up the mission of Girls Who Code, Apurva says: “The mission is to close the gender gap in technology, and broadly empower these young girls to learn to code and how coding can touch every facet of their life.”
She recounted one of the most memorable moments from her experience: one of her students would always hesitate before starting problems, lacking the confidence to tackle them head-on. However, during a team challenge, she became the MVP of the group and led her team to success. “What she needed was people to believe in her and counter her low self confidence,” Apurva said. “Encouraging words like ‘see, you got this problem. You are capable, willing, and able.’ That’s what it’s about.”
Providing young girls with not only the technical skill set, but also the mental and emotional tools to build confidence and camaraderie is crucial to overcoming the gender discrepancy in computer science. While there are many areas of improvement to be made, from the wage gap to children’s toy marketing to sexist behavior in the classroom and workplace, programs that create a safe, diverse, and enjoyable environment for women to learn how to code are hugely important.
For the young girls and women who are interested in pursuing computer science, Apurva had this to say: “Be persistent. Be persistent academically, and in other ways. If one door closes because it wasn’t the right fit, find another door that will lead you there. Hold the belief that you can do anything, and lift yourself up, even as others try to push you down.”
Learn more about pursuing a STEM field here.
Teach yourself how to code (for free!) here.