Girls Who Code has been leading efforts to close the gender gap in tech for seven years. Our work is already making a difference. We’ve reached 185,000 girls in all 50 states, and our college-aged alumni are majoring in computer science at a rate 15 times the national average.
We see a real opportunity to expand on the impact of our programs and to close the gender gap within a generation by working with policymakers at the state and national levels.
Existing public policies do not do enough to adequately measure and address the gender imbalance in K-12 computer science classrooms because they focus almost exclusively on increasing access. Decades-old stereotypes, however, about who can and should be a computer scientist still prevent girls at this age from enrolling in courses, irrespective of access.
The imbalance that starts in middle school and high school continues into the workforce. Tech jobs are the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. economy, and are expected to grow by more than half a million by 2026. In 2016, however, only 64,000 students graduated with computer science degrees. Only 18 percent of those graduates were women. With women making up a near majority of primary breadwinners, it’s crucial they be equipped for tech jobs – all of which pay twice the average wage. What’s more, unless we engage the untapped source of female talent to fill computing jobs, the U.S. will be unable to compete with more tech-savvy workforces from abroad.
Girls Who Code is putting forth four (4) policy recommendations for lawmakers across the country committed to closing the gender gap in tech. These recommendations are designed specifically to attract girls in K-12 to, and retain them in, computer science.
Our existing programs, combined with a commitment to these policy recommendations from policymakers across the country would guarantee not only a more equitable future for the U.S. but also a more competitive one.
Track and Report Data on Computer Science Participation
We cannot change what we cannot see. Diagnosing challenges and devising targeted solutions requires a clear understanding of the problem. There is dangerously little data about girls in K-12 computer science education, a critical time for driving interest and exposure to the field. With the notable exception of the AP Computer Science exam, data collection takes place in limited markets by way of expensive ad hoc surveys.
Fortunately, many schools and districts already report participation in targeted programs and core subjects. We recommend incorporating computer science participation into existing reporting infrastructure and using existing standards and definitions for computer science courses. It is critical to track both composition of computer science course takers overall, as well as the specific courses that they are taking, at what grade level, and other socioeconomic and distinctive factors (e.g. English learner status, free and reduced lunch eligibility), to establish a clear picture of progress and areas for improvement.
Expand Computer Science Courses to all Middle Schools
States across the country have launched efforts to bring computer science to high schools. Research, however, shows that girls often do not take computer science in high school if they did not take it before the end of middle school.
Middle school experience with computer science can influence whether a girl will pursue computer science in high school and, later, in the workforce. According to research, nearly 70 percent of the growth in the computing pipeline would come from changing the path of the youngest girls. 74 percent of women working in computing were exposed to computing in middle school.
Increase Exposure To Women And Other Underrepresented Minorities In Tech Research indicates that exposure to innovation leads children to become inventors themselves. It also indicates, however, that exposure alone isn’t enough. The gender and race of an inventor plays a significant role in determining a child’s career path. One study, by Stanford professor Raj Chetty, indicates that if girls were as exposed to female inventors as often as boys are to male inventors, the gender gap in innovation would be half as large as it currently is.
We believe, and research supports, that girls who grow up surrounded by women in computer science will see that field as a potential pathway for themselves. Girls exposed to only male technologists will not benefit in the same way.
As such, a key factor in maintaining girls’ interest in computer science is providing female role models who can combat the perception of computer science as a career option only for men.
States can ensure exposure to underrepresented role models by expanding the language in Computer Science Standards in the Culture sub-concept to explicitly call out the importance of role models, particularly at earlier grades. Research shows that this is a time where girl’s interest is high and it is easiest to convert this interest into a lifelong passion for computer science.
States should also provide resources for teachers that feature leaders from underrepresented communities, such as lesson plans, classrooms materials and multimedia platforms that can be applied across multiple subject areas. By capitalizing on early opportunities to expand the common perception of who can or should be a computer scientist, we can make strides in closing the gender and racial gaps in computing.
Fund Gender Inclusion Training Within Professional Development
Educators and school leaders are gatekeepers to ensuring that girls enroll in computer science classes, and guaranteeing that they encounter welcoming and inclusive environments within those classrooms. Male students are encouraged to pursue computer science more often than female students. Too often, cultural norms of what a coder looks like can seep into the education system and keep girls out of computer science courses and even prevent them from taking the prerequisites for entering those courses.
By funding gender inclusion training as a part of holistic professional development, we can be sure that teachers are equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to understand – and correct for – how deeply gender biases can impact learning. Counselors should also undergo training to ensure that they are encouraging girls to enroll in computer science and the discipline’s prerequisites.