Girls Who Code graduate Goldman Sachs program

Consider a fully functional website with educational content, celebrity forums, social engagement and crowdsourcing features — built in only eight weeks, using standard HTML, CSS, and jQuery. Now consider that the site was built by three New York City high school students – not even graduates – who had never taken a computer science course in their lives. Yet that is exactly what Kafilah Ali Muhammad, Molica Sin, and Sheree Lewis accomplished during their “I had no idea I could do this” summer.

The program, operated by 2-year-old not-for-profit Girls Who Code, is still in its infancy, and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is one of only a handful of corporate partners. Twitter Inc., Intel Corp., and eBay Inc. are among the others. The goal of the program is to initiate female high school students into the discipline of information technology and pique their interest in the types of IT careers available to them. But while the program may make a dent with young women, the problem of recruiting more young U.S. citizens into IT careers will require greater societal changes than a single non-profit can accomplish. Such as, for instance, a wider acceptance of computer science credits towards a high school diploma.

Certainly the program was effective where the 20 young graduates of the Goldman Sachs program were concerned. Ms. Muhammad, who attends the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she discovered that she could use information technology to address issues that she’s passionate about, such as mental health. Computer science, she said, is about “what you’re capable of doing, and applying it to your life.”

Still,  there is a paucity of females coming into the IT workforce.

According to Kristen Titus, the executive director of Girls Who Code, only 0.3% of female high school students express an interest in computer science. Only 4,000 U.S. girls took advanced placement computer science classes in high school, she said. Yelena Denisenko, another graduate of Girls Who Code, says that until she was approached about GWC by her guidance counselor, IT “was something that nobody came forward with for me.”

And the problem seems to be only growing. Jane Chwick, who spent 30 years at Goldman Sachs, most recently as co-chief operating officer of its technology division and sponsor of the firm’s Women in Technology Diversity Network, says that despite its best efforts only approximately 20% of the company’s IT staff are women, compared with over 30% when she began her career. “I didn’t think [female representation in IT] was a problem, and I was wrong,” she said during an interview at Goldman Sachs headquarters.

She says IT suffers from poor PR – few women realize how well jobs in IT pay, or how flexible work conditions can be. As a result, she says, “women are absolutely not represented in the workforce of the future.”

The problem is not limited to girls, says Ms. Chwick. Even among boys, “only the geeks are going into computer science” in college. She asserts that too few U.S. kids are studying computer science to fill critical IT jobs of the future.

One reason is that computer science programs are still the red-headed stepchild of high school curricula. According to Ms. Titus, most high schools don’t offer computer science courses, and less than 1% of vaunted STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) funding actually “relates to technology.”

“Not only is there no requirement for computer science class to graduate, only 10 states allow computer science classes to count as credits towards a degree,” said Ms. Titus. And that tenth state – the State of Washington – made the change to its high school degree criteria only this year.

“It’s 2013 and we still haven’t figured this out,” said Ms. Chwick.