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June 30, 2016

To Bridge the Gender Gap in Tech, These Organizations Start Early

The gender gap in technology matters. From pay equity and career advancement to venture funding, women get the short end of the stick. It’s even worse for women of color. That’s a systemic issue that deprives society of badly needed talent and innovation, says Lindsay Siegel, executive director of the Zahn Innovation Center at The City College of New York, which recently joined with Standard Chartered Bank to host a discussion of these issues. The event, Decoding the Gender Divide, brought together pioneering women who are leading the way in tackling the gender and race gap in technology.

We spoke with two of these women, Leah Gilliam, vice president of strategy & innovation for Girls Who Code, and Calena Jamieson, East Coast program manager for Black Girls Code, about tackling the root causes holding women back from successful STEM careers—which start well before they enter the job market. (Note: Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code are not affiliated)

Leah Gilliam, VP of Strategy & Innovation at Girls Who Code

Amy Cortese: Here are some statistics off the Girls Who Code website: In middle school, 74 percent of girls express interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), but when choosing a college major, just 0.4 percent of high school girls select computer science. And while 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, just 12 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women. What’s going on? Why do so many young women have an interest and then drop off?

Leah Gilliam: There’s a lot going on. It’s certainly not a new issue, but in some ways the problems are recent. In the mid-1980s, there were a relatively healthy number of women who were majoring in computer science—it was something like 37 percent—and then we saw a really big drop-off. Today it’s around 18 percent.

Girls are really interested in STEM fields in middle school, but then you see that drop, for science and engineering in particular. We do think that popular culture has a lot to do with it, that gender bias has a lot to do with it, and in many ways young women often are not encouraged to understand how things work in the same ways, to mess around and tinker and solve problems. And that’s so much of what these particular fields are about.

Girls Who Code really developed as an intervention. It was really meant to spark girls’ interest in computer science, because the statistics are so dismal. This was seen as the moment not just to introduce young women to the fundamental concepts, but to expose them to mentors and historical figures and real people who look like them and who are interested in doing this sort of work, so that they have the perseverance they need to move forward.

AC. Tell me about your progress so far.

LG: We’ve been around since 2012, and we’ve seen huge growth and success in that time. We’ve grown from 20 girls in New York to 11,000 girls in 42 states.

AC: So what happens with girls who have gone through your programs? How old are they now and are you tracking the outcomes?

LG: Of that 11,000 girls, a large number of them are still in middle school, the majority are in high school, and then we have around 300 young women now in their first or second year of college. We found that after that summer immersion program, there is a high percentage of women that are eager to go on and pursue computer science—90 percent of the Summer Immersion Program participants say they are planning to major or minor in a computer science-related field.

And in our after school club that runs nine months during the year, we find that 77 percent of the women in those programs are now much more interested in computer science.

The summer immersion program in particular turns on a light, they begin to understand the larger impact of this work. And 90 percent of young women who have been in our summer immersion program teach another girl to code. So there’s also this cool component of giving back.

AC: Let’s talk about gender bias. Even if women pursue a computer science career, they still face challenges getting jobs, feeling comfortable in them, and being recognized and compensated as equals…

LG: There’s a lot going on there. In a sense, women have to do more and prove themselves over and over again, and there is a huge sense of being an imposter. It’s hard to prove yourself constantly and have people questioning your authority. As a woman you’re often expected to be a bit of a caretaker, so women who are honest and forthright are often seen as being disagreeable. There’s an unconscious bias and a real rigidity when it comes to gender roles and how people are expected to behave.

I just read an interesting study that notes that this is a particular problem for Latina and black women. Some of the blind studies that have been done show the pernicious nature of bias. Studies in which they conceal names during hiring practices indicate that it’s not just men that may choose the male candidate or a candidate with a “white-sounding” name—often women may fall prey to the same biases as their white, male colleagues.

So we’re being really careful to try and understand the range of issues that are compounding the gender gap. Some of it is obviously about unconscious bias and there’s a lot of strong research and great work in the tech industry to address and respond to that. Some of these issues are also about a lack of equity and access, so that’s something we’re eager to address in where we locate our programs and who they are designed to serve.

AC: What gives you hope for the future?

LG: I love seeing all of the different things that young people studying computer science make and put into the world. The interesting and really rewarding part for me is seeing how people who have been historically underrepresented in science and technology fields demonstrate and instantiate their knowledge and interests. The games, experiences and ideas that they make and design are the best.

Calena Jamieson, East Coast program manager, Black Girls Code

AC: We’re talking about the challenges facing women and young girls in tech. Are these issues more pronounced for girls of color? 

CJ: Absolutely. Women make up 25 percent of the workers in computer science. For women of color, that number drops to three percent, and it’s even lower for Latina women and native Americans. So there is a very distinct crisis in that area in terms of women of color getting into the technology space.

AC: Are the issues different, or just more intense?

CJ: I think every girl or woman has a different story, whether it’s a cultural thing or a finance thing or just a lack of exposure. You’re potentially deterred from one thing or maybe steered toward another thing. I think every young woman has her own experience.

AC: Black Girls Code was created in 2011. Tell me about the progress you’ve made since then.

CJ: We’ve gone from the Bay Area, where we launched, to 13 cities. We’ve touched over 5,000 girls in terms of our workshops and other events that help expose them to this space. Black Girls Code is growing each year. Our bold goal is to teach 1 million girls to code by the year 2040.

AC: What sort of programs do you offer?

Our core offerings are one-day Saturday workshops, introductory programs to building web pages, mobile apps and games; we do a robot expo as well, and we do weekend-long hackathons, where girls take an idea and use technology to create solutions. We’re also doing in some cities a summer camp that allows girls to delve deeper.

This year we’re hoping to expand our code club, which is a longer term program that we piloted in the Bay Area. We’re expanding our hackathons and summer camps to more cities. And for our one-day workshops, we’re looking to see what else is out there that we can add.

AC: What is it that gets girls excited about these fields?

CJ: Most girls tend to be excited when they walk into a workshop and it’s an environment where they see all girls. We do our best to make it a fun learning environment for them. You see girls who never thought they could make a web page or a mobile app and they’re just excited about that. The whole idea is introducing to them to the concept that they don’t have to just use apps on their phone, they actually have the ability to create something with these tools that’s of their own vision.

AC: What kind of apps have the girls developed?

CJ: All of our hackathons have a social justice theme. I’m always amazed at how thoughtful the girls are in terms of what they want to bring to their friends and their community: helping students to study, environmental issues, bullying, things like that. It just goes to show, you can’t underestimate these girls!

AC: What gives you hope for the future?

CJ: Girls of color are smart, creative and innovative; they can and will change the face of technology.


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Amy Cortese is an award-winning journalist and the author of Locavesting (Wiley, 2011), about the local investing movement and its potential to rebuild the economy, one community at a time. Her coverage of business, technology and social/environmental issues has appeared in Business Week, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Plenty, Wired, The Daily Beast, and many other publications. Used with the permission of ‘The Network, Cisco’s Technology News Site.’ http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.

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