You might assume that more and more women are finishing school with computer science degrees, right? There's just one problem: you'd be wrong.

According to new research from Girls Who Code and Accenture, over the last 30 years, the gender gap and computing jobs has become worse, not better. At the same time, computer science jobs have become increasingly in demand.

Woman constituted 37% of computer science majors in 1984; in 2014, that number had shrunk to 18%. This is a pretty big deal economically, considering the computing industry in the US creates jobs at three times the national average. If current trends continue, women will be outnumbered four to one by men in the computing industry by 2025.

The Girls Who Code-Accenture study includes some strategies for how educators can make computer science more appealing to young women. It also shows how seemingly minor details can create a positive or negative sentiment towards computer science amongst females, from middle school to high school to college.

Interestingly, the appeal of computer science to girls plateaus in middle school. There are a few factors that increase the odds of a sustained interest in computing amongst young girls: having a thought-provoking teacher, for one. Another factor is feeling that coding is, indeed, "for girls."

However, the attractiveness of computing drops in high school, due to a lack of coding classes available, or a lack of friends in those classes. Interest can often grow again in college, however, due (again) to inspiring teachers or the discovery of positive role models. Case in point: girls who have women teaching them are more likely to be interested in pursuing computer science; boys, on the other hand, seem equally engaged in computer science regardless of the teacher's gender.

"For girls, you cannot be what you cannot see," says Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. "When they have positive role models teaching them computer science, talking about the pioneers of computer science ... the impossible seems possible, and they then can imagine a place in that field for themselves."

Accenture's group chief executive for North America, Julie Sweet, argues that it is important to specifically target these young women in order to keep them interested in coding. Part of the problem is that girls, who are often more engaged with real-word problem solving, are less interested in the content of the typical coding project.

One example of an institution that has been trying to address this challenge is University of California--Berkeley. The school had been offering a course called

"Introduction to Symbolic Programming," which was less likely to appeal to women. The course title was then changed to "Beauty and the Joy of Computing." The result? For the first time in two decades, females outnumber males in the course.

Sweet believes that it's possible to teach a course with engaging content that can engage male and female coders alike "when you are deliberate about it."

The Accenture-Girls Who Code study has a particular focus on middle school, since that's when adolescents are typically first introduced to computer science. Saujani believes that to solve the coding gap, there must be more investment in middle school to get young women to fall in love with computer science at an early age. After all, of women who work in computer science, 74 percent were first exposed to it in middle school.

Girls Who Code's research with Accenture uncovered some surprising findings about where the trend of female computer scientists is going. "Despite unprecedented momentum behind universal computer science education, the share of women in computing is actually getting worse and will continue to decline if we don't take action now," says Reshma Saujani. "Businesses can best solve this problem by supporting initiatives that focus on girls in sparking and sustaining their interest beginning as early as middle school, where a vast majority of gains in the pipeline will come from."

The research's findings "reinforced the reality that the pipeline is long and leaky, and in order to reverse the downward trend we must intervene long before girls even land their first jobs," says Saujani.

Luckily, there are some companies that are part of the solution. 90% of Girls Who Code's funding comes from corporate partners who believe in their mission and approach to giving girls access to computer science, particularly those in underserved communities. Some partners, such as AT&T and Prudential Financial, Inc. have invested in girls at every level by supporting Girls Who Code's Clubs and Summer Immersion programs and Alumni Network.

According to Saujani, it takes "a true commitment because it takes longer to start seeing real impact," especially considering the true measure of success is to have a girl major or minor in Computer Science, or a closely related field. But Saujani is heartened by the enormous progress they've already seen. In Girls Who Code's most recent alumni survey, over 90% of Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program alumni indicated intent to major or minor in Computer Science, with 84% of program alumni indicating they were likely to pursue a career in technology or computing.

Published on: Nov 27, 2016
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