When deciding a college major, 0.3 percent of girls choose computer science.
Unfortunately, statistics like this aren’t uncommon in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, where women are grossly underrepresented. That’s why Girls Who Code stepped in with its Summer Immersion Program for female high school students. The organization is dedicated to inspiring and preparing girls for the 1.4 million computer specialist job openings that will be available by 2020.
“Everybody needs to take on this movement and try to push young women forward in one way or another,” said Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code.
The Summer Immersion Program is a seven-week course that focuses on three main aspects: skills, exposure, and mentorship. Instruction ranges from basic computer science fundamentals to robotics, web design, algorithms, and mobile development. Successful female engineers and entrepreneurs speak to the girls throughout the course of the program, and they also take field trips to visit tech companies, startups, and academic institutions.
When the program started in 2012, there was only one program in New York City. In 2013, it expanded to eight cities around the U.S., and this year it is in nine:
- Mountain View
- New York
- Palo Alto
- San Francisco
- San Jose
- San Ramon
All current female sophomore or junior high school students are eligible, even if they have no prior experience in computer science. The only requirement is to be passionate about technology. The free program runs Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm, and girls must commit to the entire length of it and find their own transportation. Scholarships are available to cover transportation and lunch costs for students with limited financial resources.The application is due on Feb. 27, and ones submitted before Feb. 16 will be entered in a raffle to win a free iPad.
At the end of the program, the girls present the projects to top female executives—last year, it was Sheryl Sandberg. They’ve created things such as Let It Flow, an app to find nearby restrooms, a bullying education app, and an algorithm that detects whether a tumor is benign or malignant.
Seeing what the girls come up with is truly exciting and inspirational for Saujani, who said girls almost always come up with ideas that will have a profound impact on their communities and the world. But this knowledge comes with a twinge of sadness.
“We are missing out on the innovation of these young women by not giving them the skill sets and the tools that they need,” she said. “The world is riddled with problems that need solving and by giving these young women this skill set, we are one step closer to solving them.”
What the young women do after they graduate the immersion program is just as important. During the first few months, they act as ambassadors for Girls Who Code, spreading their newfound knowledge to friends and relatives and recruiting the next class. Girls Who Code reports that 95 percent of participants last year said they are more likely to consider a major or minor in computer science, and 81 percent said they intended to pursue a career in technology.
The girls typically stay connected to the Girls Who Code team and to each other. They’ve held events on their own, and they create localized clubs and programs to promote computer science education.
“They are connected to one another—it’s one of those programs that you’re a part of and you’re always a part of,” Saujani said. “Activities and events are happening that are not organized by us, but by the girls, which is the best.”
One of Saujani’s biggest challenges is accepting that the organization can’t grow as fast as her ideas do. For every one girl they accept, four or five others are turned down. How does she reach those other five? One of the goals this year is to increase the number of clubs around the country. Another challenge is reaching different geographic locations. The program has expanded immensely this year, but Saujani constantly worries about “that girl in rural Kansas who wants to learn how to code.” How do they make sure she gets the chance?
The extension of the summer program is the Girls Who Code Clubs model, which ranges from weekly after-school clubs to monthly workshops. Girls who participate—and especially those girls who don’t have the opportunity to do so—are encouraged to start their own clubs in their school.
Overall, participants in the program are already on the track to college. Nationally, more females attend higher education institutions than males. Research by the New America Foundation showed that from 2002 to 2012, 58 percent of students entering graduate school were women. In 2012, women earned two-thirds of total certificates awarded, 60% of master’s degrees awarded, and over half of the doctoral degrees awarded.
The typical stereotype of computer science majors may be starting to fade, but the image of a geeky, nerdy male remains strong, particularly in the minds of teenage girls, and they don’t want to pursue careers in the field because of it. The disparity isn’t caused by aptitude for computer science—it’s confidence.
“High school girls aren’t likely to sign up for a computer science class (if one is even offered at their school) when it’s full of only boys,” said Roxanne Emadi, grassroots strategist for Code.org, an organization dedicated to expanding computer science education and backed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and many of the tech industry’s leading entrepreneurs and companies.
On the first day of the Summer Immersion Program, the girls often don’t speak up and are unsure how to promote themselves. But by the last day, Saujani said, many of them are fearless. Having confidence is crucial for women entering a male-dominated field, whether it’s in computer science classes or at an engineering firm.
Fifty-seven percent of bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, but just 12 percent of them are in computer science. Convincing girls—especially right before they apply for college—that they need this skill set in the 21st century is the most important goal of the Summer Immersion Program.
“If not, we are yet again going to have another generation that’s run by men,” Saujani said.