This summer, Groupon has been hosting Girls Who Code (GWC) in their Chicago headquarters for a 7-week summer immersion program that aims to increase the number of women in Engineering by teaching high school girls the skills they need to be successful in college and beyond. GWC is a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. As a woman working in technology, this non-profit caught my eye when it launched back in 2012 as something that would really make a difference in closing the gender gap. Throughout my career, I’ve been asked to participate or advocate for a large range of efforts focused on improving diversity and culture as it relates to gender in technology. While these efforts are important and necessary, I’ve always felt they weren’t addressing the source of this trend in the US. When thinking about starting this non-profit, Reshma Saujani (the founder and CEO of GWC) looked at the data and honed in on addressing the problem when the drop outs occur (sweet spot 8-9th grade).
While campaigning for the NY seat in the House of Representatives in 2010 and running for New York Public Advocate in 2013, Reshma started seeing a trend of little to no girls in robotics labs and computer science classes as she toured schools in NY. This brought her to the conclusion that this is the biggest domestic issue of this time. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that statement, the numbers are hard to ignore. In the 1980’s 37% of computer science graduates were women. Today, it’s 12%. She points out Steve Jobs probably had more women on his initial Apple team than Mark Zuckerburg has at Facebook today. What’s happening?
Saujani compares this phenomenon to the medical and law fields in the 70’s when 10% of doctors and lawyers were women. Today it’s 50%. What happened? Popular television shows in the U.S. like LA Law, Grey’s Anatomy and Law and Order have arguably altered the perception of these professions for young women. Just like Reshma experienced, if young girls are indoctrinated with images and messages of women who are smart and successful, they say “I want to be that too.” It’s subtle and often subconscious, but it makes a real impact. So why is the opposite happening in technology? Constantly, girls are receiving the message that this is not for them. They are listening, and they are opting out.
Today GWC has 57 programs in 8 cities nationwide and is embedded in companies like Facebook, Square, Twitter and Amazon. Companies don’t see this as charity, but a recruiting effort.
All of the girls in the first GWC cohort majored in computer science, were at the top of their classes and received internships at big tech companies. Today only .4% of girls in high school want to major in CS. Only 7,500 women graduated in computer science last year. 95% of girls leaving the GWC program want to major in CS. As this program grows, we can turn this number around in the next 5 -10 years. That’s an impressive start to this initiative.
When asked what people can do to help, Reshma advised women in the industry to be advocates for one another and give back by mentoring or volunteering for GWC. She strongly states, “I have committed my work and life to mentoring women. We all have an obligation to do that.”
For those not in the technology industry, most people have young girls in their lives. She advises us all to encourage girls into STEM fields. This can be accomplished by buying them a Goldiblox set or talking to them about the interesting problems they can solve with technology. We all need to be evangelists on this issue. I was recently having a conversation with my 6 year old cousin and I asked her what her favorite subject was in school. She proudly announced it was Math. Remembering what Reshma said, I went a bit overboard telling her how awesome that would be and all the interesting problems she could solve. I’ll have to remember to have that conversation again when she reaches 8th grade.