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Leading The Charge: How Girls Who Code Is Helping Bridge The Gap For Women In Tech

Insights & Ideas Team •  June 9, 2015 | Focus on Women

Andrea Gonzales loves to code, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell you so. Yet the 17-year-old junior at Hunter College High School also knows that few of her friends truly get her passion for computer programming. “They think coding is, well, kinda nerdy,” said Gonzales.

Natasha Driver, a high school senior also from New York, understands what Gonzales is saying. “Up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anything about computers. I thought of coding as something only techie guys do,” said Driver.

Driver and Gonzales aren’t alone in thinking tech is largely a boys’ club. Ask any high school girl what she wants to major in when she gets to college, and less than 1 percent (0.3 percent) will name computer science. Yet technology and engineering are where young people are likely to find the best opportunities for economic and career advancement. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 1.4 million new jobs in computer science by 2020, making it one of the fastest-growing categories in the already white-hot STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) sector.1

So what prompted Gonzales and Driver to learn how to program?

Last summer, each participated in the Girls Who Code (GWC) Summer Immersion Program, an eye-opening experience that changed their perspective—and their long-term goals.

The Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program is an intensive seven-week opportunity that pairs project-based computer science education with real-world tech industry exposure and mentoring. Started in 2012 by Reshma Saujani, a former New York City Deputy Public Advocate, GWC aims to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering fields by providing computer science education to one million girls by 2020.

The idea for Girls Who Code came to Saujani while she was campaigning to become the first South Asian woman in Congress. “We were touring schools in a poorer New York City district. As I looked around, I began to notice a stark difference between boys and girls and their access to technology. I knew I had to do something to level that playing field.”

Saujani drew from her own experience in thinking about the best way to teach girls about computers. “I grew up with a lot of encouragement to succeed. But like so many young women, I lacked confidence about my math skills—an ironic twist, given that both my parents are successful engineers,” said Saujani. “Yet I heeded the message society gives so many young women: You’re a girl; don’t worry about math and technology. You still have a shot at becoming an attorney, doctor or teacher.”

Natasha Driver says that Saujani’s program shifted how she sees her future. “Like a lot of girls, I wasn’t exposed to programming as I was growing up, so it wasn’t on my mind as a career path. By the time I finished the Summer Immersion Program, I clearly saw how I could use computer science to do good in the world and help others. This fall, I’ll be attending DePauw University on a full scholarship and plan to major in computer science and political science. And it all started with GWC.”

Andrea Gonzales also described GWC as life changing.

“The Summer Immersion Program challenged me to take a giant leap forward in my programming skills. At the same time, it also inspired me to strengthen my soft skills,” said Gonzales. “I learned how to speak in front of a group of tech leaders and pitch my ideas to program developers. I now have a clearer vision for how I can use programming to express my creativity and have a tangible impact on society.”

While Saujani is delighted with the impact the Summer Immersion Program is having, her vision is to reach as many girls as possible. “For a true movement to occur, GWC needs to reach girls even sooner. That’s why we also launched Girls Who Code Clubs, which partners with schools, universities and corporations to bring high-quality extracurricular computer science education to girls in grades 6-12 nationwide.”

According to its recent year-end report, momentum is building for these programs. In 2014, close to 2,200 girls across more than 20 states took part in the Girls Who Code after-school program, up from 600 participants the year before. The Summer Immersion Program had 375 participants last year, up from 152 in 2013.

Even more impressive is the impact these programs are having. In 2014, 90 percent of the GWC Summer Immersion Program alumnae are either majoring or planning to major in computer science or mechanical/electrical engineering in college. Of those studying computer science, 77 percent cited Girls Who Code as significantly changing their trajectory.

Saujani’s commitment to investing in the future of women is one reason why she was honored this month with the 2015 Forbes Impact Award in Leadership presented by Northwestern Mutual, which recognizes entrepreneurs for their vision and social impact. It’s also why corporate sponsors and other donors pitched in $7.7 million last year to help GWC expand its efforts.

“Girls Who Code shows girls of all backgrounds that technology is a powerful tool for their economic and professional future,” said Saujani. In an industry where a single line of code can touch literally billions of people, that’s an opportunity young women today don’t want to miss.

1The White House Office of the Vice President, “Fact Sheet: Vice President Biden Announces Recipients of $450 million of Job-Driven Training Grants,” September 29, 2014. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/29/fact-sheet-vice-president-biden-announces-recipients-450-million-job-dri

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