Decoding the Computer Science Gender Gap

Big tech companies are launching efforts to inspire more women to consider coding.

Why are there so few women programmers?

That’s a question many tech companies have been asking, including tech giant Google. In May, the company released the results of a study showing that women make up only 17 percent of Google’s tech-related workforce.

The gender gap appears to span the entire tech industry. Education Week reports that less than 20 percent of those who took the Advanced Placement computer science exam in 2013 were women.

To help combat this disparity, Google is funding Made with Code, part of a $50 million initiative aimed at helping to close the tech gender gap by encouraging women to pursue careers in computer programming.

Others have attempted to bridge the divide as well. Rane Johnson-Stempson, the principal research director at Microsoft Research, helped organize the Microsoft International Women's Hackathon in May. The worldwide event, anchored in Washington, D.C., drew more than 2,000 participants from nearly 50 universities and 11 countries.

In an interview with EdTech, Johnson-Stempson says a longstanding gender bias has deprived many girls of opportunities to learn about technology.

“At younger ages, boys are encouraged to be on the computer, to play computer games, to explore online. In the 1980s and ’90s, many families put computers in the boy’s bedroom but not the girl’s,” she says.

But times are changing.

"We need to show the impact computer science has in changing the world and solving its greatest challenges — HIV, cancer, global warming, etc. — and we need to discuss how it is creative, collaborative, and each day is different,” Johnson-Stempson says. “Computer science is no longer one person sitting behind a computer programming by themselves. It requires teams with different skill sets asking questions differently to solve a problem. This is what excites girls.”

The Big Dream Movement is one attempt to break down these barriers. By connecting girls around the world with organizations, academia and resources, the movement hopes to inspire them to pursue STEM careers. The movement's name is borrowed from "Big Dream," a documentary that chronicles the lives of seven young women seeking to break into the STEM field.

Johnson-Stempson offered these eight tips for getting younger girls interested in programming:

  1. Give girls more opportunities to build — not just consume — digital resources such as blogs, websites, apps, comics, podcasts and videos.
  2. Encourage girls to try programming with tools like Microsoft’sTouchDevelop, Kodu, Scratch, App Maker and others: http://research.microsoft.com/diversity and http://code.org
  3. When you have a technical issue, ask your daughter or student if she knows how to fix it; if she doesn't,figure it out together.
  4. Play games.
  5. Share the story of history’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace.
  6. Arrange for your daughter or student to shadow women working in technology.
  7. Have her watch these videos on women researchers who are making a difference: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/collaboration/focus/womenincomputin…
  8. Send her to a computer programming camp. Go to the National Girls Collaborative Project to find opportunities near you: http://ngcproject.org/get-involved.
Image by Gzorgz/THinkStock
Aug 15 2014

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