Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that aims to get more women involved in tech, characterizes herself as one of "the lost girls." While she recognized that engineering positions were often the most lucrative ones, she felt too intimidated to pursue them.
"I convinced myself that I wasn't good at math and science because I didn't know the answer right away," Saujani recalls. "I feel like I would have been a great coder. But it wasn't available to me. I didn't have computer science in my high school."
Saujani's experience isn't unique. In fact, new research suggests that the gender technology gap is actually getting worse. Over the next 10 years, the number of women in computer science jobs will decline from 24 percent to 22 percent.
That's according to a new report from professional services firm Accenture and Girls Who Code, called "Cracking the Gender Code." More than 8,000 junior high and high school students, undergraduates, computer science teachers, and parents were surveyed to parse the level of women's interest in coding.
"It's clear that we need to do something different," said Paul Daugherty, Accenture's chief technology officer. He sees it as a business issue, inasmuch as companies will lack the diverse perspectives needed to achieve better financial returns.
The findings, says Saujani, are disheartening. "There's so much attention being put into universal computer science education," she explained. "When you have in-school instruction, you have to be very careful that you're not turning girls off. Because when you're turning them off, you're turning them off permanently."
The good news, however, is that if parents and teachers can get girls interested in computer science starting in junior high--and keep them engaged throughout college--the number of women engineers could triple to 3.9 million by 2025, thus boosting women's earnings by as much as $299 billion, the report found.
Here are three, concrete ways to get girls more interested in technology early on:
1. Do away with male curricula
Computer science programs are often geared towards stereotypically male interests, such as video games and sports. By contrast, girls tend to be more engaged when given the opportunity to solve real-world problems. Saujani gives the example of using technology to combat climate change, or to give populations in rural parts of Africa better access to drinking water.
At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., teachers were able to increase the share of women studying computer science by 10 percent to 40 percent, by giving more world health lectures. They also renamed some classes (i.e., changing "Introduction to Programming in Java" to "Creative Approaches to Problem-Solving in Science and Engineering Using Python").
She adds that girls typically like to work in teams, so teachers should think to re-design curricula to involve more group projects, and fewer independent exercises.
Another way to improve these classes would be to include lessons on female pioneers in the industry, such as Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace.
2. Hire more female teachers
While boys tend to be unfazed by the gender of their teacher, girls are substantially more interested in the subject matter if their teacher is a woman, the report found. Having an "inspiring" teacher in junior high school increased the likelihood of a girl pursuing computer science by 16 percent, and 73 percent of high school girls interested in studying computer science had a teacher who encouraged them.
It's immensely important that women have role models they can look to in the industry, Saujani adds.
3. Make technology "cool" to girls
Feeling like computer science is "for girls" increased the chances of a girl in junior high being interested in pursuing the field by 25 percent, while perceiving computing as "cool" increased her chances by 11 percent, the report showed.
One way to make coding cooler would be to inject a summer camp-type feel into regular classes. Girls Who Code runs more than 1,500 after school clubs from middle school onward, designed to make computer science more fun and engaging.
Accenture's Daugherty, who has four children, says he's noticed a "marked" difference in how his daughters have taken to technology compared to his sons. To make computer science cooler, he suggests getting more women exposed to fun and interactive video games from an early age.
"One of my daughters at a very early age started out playing Club Penguin," he remembers, and she ultimately developed a strong interest in computer science.
"The thing I've learned over the past five years is that this is doable," Saujani says. "We don't need to have a gender gap in tech. There's not an aptitude issue, it's all about the things we are doing to girls that we can change."