Exploring how organizations are motivating young women to be computer programmers
Lauren Boyer for NSTMF
March 21, 2016
In the early 2000s, Corinne Warnshuis yearned for that uniqueness every teenager craves.
It was the heyday of Myspace, a social networking site that – unlike its successor Facebook – allowed users to customize their profiles with colors, borders and graphics.
To impress her friends, Warnshuis scoured Internet forums to find combinations of words and symbols that could tell the website to replace her page’s background with something trendier.
In the process, she taught herself the computer programming language HTML – without even realizing it.
“I had never heard the words ‘computer science,’” said 28-year-old Warnshuis, Executive Director of Girl Develop It.
With chapters in more than 50 cities, her Philadelphia-based nonprofit has provided more than 60,000 women with affordable and judgment-free opportunities to learn web and software development since its founding in 2010.
These groups share an overarching goal: bridge the gender gap to give women a voice in the development of technology that powers our lives.
“You need so many different perspectives to build a great product, a great team,” Warnshuis said. “Diversity makes companies better.”
While women make up half the U.S. workforce, they represent about 27 percent of jobs in computer science fields, according to the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This statistic is mirrored by America’s tech giants. In 2015, Google reported that 30 percent of its employees were women.
In its annual diversity report, Microsoft reported a decline in women workers between 2014 and 2015, from 29 percent to 26.8 percent of the company’s total workforce.
Apple is now 31 percent female, according to its most recent diversity report.
Even the women considered trailblazers in tech are sometimes bypassed by history. Take, for example, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.
In the 1950s, Hopper, recipient of the 1991 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, led the team that invented COBOL, one of the first computer programming languages.
A pioneer of early technology, “Amazing Grace,” as she is often called, invented the term “debugging” after pulling a moth out of Harvard’s Mark II computer.
Until her death in 1992, she worked as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation.
“If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it,” she is often quoted as saying. “It’s much easier to apologize than to get permission.”
This can-do spirit lends itself to inspiring the next generation of female tech leaders – a task that begins in America’s classrooms, according to Code.org.
Only 1 in 4 U.S. schools teach computer science, said Alice Steinglass, the Seattle-based advocacy group’s vice president of product and marketing.
“A girl might be really excited about computer science, but sometimes she doesn’t have the opportunity,” she added.
When computer science is offered, many girls balk at signing up – intimidated by boys who may have tinkered with computers at a younger age.
“Maybe they’ve been making games. Maybe they’ve been hacking,” Steinglass said. “As a woman who hasn’t had exposure to computer science, you feel like you’re starting way behind.”
It’s a sentiment Steinglass knows firsthand.
Before working at Code.org, she held a variety of positions within Microsoft, leading projects with Hololens, Windows and XBox Live.
“For a long time, I would often find myself to be the only female in the room,” she said. “We need to encourage women where it starts.”
Girls who are exposed to computer science in K-12 are 10 times more likely to pursue the field in college, Steinglass said.
The problem? Exposure is lagging.
In 2015, only 22 percent of students taking the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam were girls, according to data cited by the White House.
These numbers trickle through the pipeline to universities, where 18 percent of computer science undergraduates are women, according to the National Science Foundation.
That’s where Code.org aims to level the playing field.
On its website, anyone can sign up to participate in the Hour of Code, a 60-minute free introduction to computer science that aims to prove anyone can learn the basics.
Of the people who tried Hour of Code last year, Steinglass said, 51 percent were female.
Their tutorials feature women of varying ages, depending on the intended audience.
“It’s about breaking the stereotypes,” Steinglass said. “You don’t learn computer science in an hour. But you can begin to realize that computer science can solve problems. It can be fun and creative.”
In classrooms across the country, some girls are ahead of the curve.
Allison Horn, a junior at Davenport West High School in Iowa, excitedly shares the app she created for a class using MIT App Inventor.
“It’s a guessing game,” she said. “It shows a close-up picture of a vehicle, and you have to guess what it is.”
Horn, 17, grew up watching her brother build computers, and now she’s building things herself, having already learned the basics of Python, the same programming language that powers the social network Instagram.
Next year, she’ll learn C Sharp and C++ through Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that provides STEM curriculum for elementary, middle and high schools.
In college, Horn plans to pursue a career in 3-D printing, which requires computer programming to tell a machine how to build a solid object.
“It’s a great, up and coming field and it’s really taking off,” she said.
By 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs, but only 400,000 computer science students.