Women in Tech: let’s start the change at school level

Explain this: in the US In 2012, women accounted for 57% of college graduates, but just 18% of computer science graduates. In Spain, where I live, the figures are 54% and 28% respectively.

Women in Tech

(image from Death to the Stock Photo)

Yesterday I attended a really interesting conference in Madrid put on by the Instituto de la Mujer, on “Mujeres y Tecnología”. Interesting topics, well presented, but the speech that most grabbed my attention touched on the key motivators of identity and visibility. José Antonio Gabelas of the University of Zaragoza presented “”Internet as an instrument for a gender-equal education”, and his main focus was on the “gender gap”, why women are “missing the train” of progress. We were not key players in the first two industrial revolutions, and we’re missing out on the third.

Unfortunately, that does seem to be true, on average. In 2013, 26% of the US computing workforce were women, according to the Dept. of Labor. 63% of 2013 Intel Science and Engineering Fair finalists in biochemistry were female, whereas in computer science the number comes down to 14%. Why the difference? Women hold 57% of professional occupations in the US, but if we filter down to professional computing occupations, the number drops to 26%. Why?

While many women feel that there is a macho culture in the tech field that alienates women (for more on that, see here and here), Professor Gabelas and others believe that the problem starts much, much earlier, in schools. The numbers seem to bear that out:

In the US, only 20% of students taking the AP Computer Science exam were female. In the UK, 12 times as many boys as girls took optional computer science classes in school. And even the girls who do well in science classes tend to drop them at A-level. An article in Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper from December of last year states that “the picture in Britain is of a generation of girls who are nervous about maths and science.”

I was a maths geek in school and credit to my parents and my teachers that I was never made to feel awkward or even odd in any way. But most girls are not so lucky. Years ago I met a woman who was writing a thesis on why girls are bad at math. Her conclusion: that we’re embarrassed. We want to be liked, not teased. We want to be popular, not geeky. Often the subliminal pressure starts at home, with mothers asking daughters questions like: “Why do you want to study engineering? You’re so pretty!”. Schools often subconsciously perpetuate the stereotype. I doubt that anyone consciously pushes their daughters or students away from a technical path, but we often transmit the cultural values that were transmitted to us. It’s hard to change an attitude over the span of only one generation.

computer science class

(image from the San Francisco Chronicle)

Something can be done. One Berkeley computer class last year had 106 women and 104 men enrolled. However, to attract women the course was re-named “Beauty and the Joy of Computing”, so the sudden female interest is more understandable. Do we really need to repackage the field so drastically to get women interested?

Important progress is being made to introduce young girls to coding, in an environment where social pressure is not a factor. Stanford’s “Girls Teach Girls to Code” programme invites 200 high school girls onto the university campus to attend a day-long computer science workshop. Microsoft’s DigiGirlz (I like the name! Gimmicky, but cool) aims to “dispel stereotypes of the high-tech industry” through a series of technology workshops. And I love the concept and style of Geek Girl Camp, which organizes conferences, workshops and seminars by tech women, for tech women. CC4G (Computer Clubs for Girls) is an after-school club platform in the UK designed to retain girls’ interest in computing.

And, wait for it, Mattel is doing its bit with the Computer Engineer Barbie (with a pink computer, of course, because everyone knows that we love pink).

computer engineer barbie

Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It…  The world needs more programmes like this. If anyone in the Madrid area wants to work on one with me (bear in mind that I’m not a programmer), get in touch!

While these programmes are a great start, I believe that the key lies in the schools. We will not have smoothed out the stereotypes and the macho culture until there is a more equal gender balance in voluntary computer classes for kids. Great computer science teachers reaching young students of both sexes can create a motivation and a momentum that will survive the speed bump of puberty and self-consciousness.

And since the education model is slowly changing anyway (more on this later), with lectures increasingly viewed at home and the homework done in the classroom (and I’m all for more of this), the “shyness” and awkwardness that young girls traditionally feel in a “macho” subject will disappear. And when they start kicking ass doing really well, they will not care if they are still in the minority. Which means that soon they won’t be. My 11-year-old daughter has been working on codeacademy.org and khanacademy.org for a while now, and is already way ahead of her class, which is just starting to learn programming. She says she wants to be a computer programmer when she grows up. I could not be prouder.

(Note: if you’d like more material on this, check out my Scoop.it board on Women in Tech.)

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