Inspiring Girls to Become Engineers by Changing the Culture of Coding
By Lisa Wirthman
By 2020, the U.S. will have 1 million unfilled computing jobs thanks to a shortage of computer science students, reports Code.org. With women receiving just 13 percent of computer science degrees, down from 37 percent in 1985, the need to close the gender gap in this field has never been stronger.
To get more girls engaged in computer science, nonprofit Code.org is taking a novel approach—changing the culture of programming.
It’s not enough to simply teach coding skills to girls, says Mona Akmal, the nonprofit’s Director of Product. Girls also need to see interesting things they can create with code beyond the video games geared largely to boys.
“If you teach coding as a first-person shooter game where you blow things up, you’re not going to get many girls,” she says.
That’s why Code.org, an organization dedicated to making computer science available in schools and increasing diversity in this field, teamed with Disney to create a coding tutorial featuring the wildly popular Frozen heroines Anna and Elsa. The tutorial works on the group’s online learning platform used by more than 50,000 classrooms nationwide.
The Frozen coding program enables girls (and boys) to join Anna and Elsa in creating snowflakes, ice fractals (repeating patterns) and skating sequences using Blockly—a visual editor that lets kids drag and drop blocks of code together to create commands.
The response to Code.org’s girl-friendly Frozen program was overwhelming: In just two months, the nonprofit expanded from 60 million to 100 million users. Thanks to Anna and Elsa, Code.org now boasts overall diversity ratios any tech company would envy: 43 percent of its users are girls, and 37 percent are African American or Hispanic.
“Girls love the creative aspect of computer science,” says Akmal. In Code.org’s play lab, for example, girls tend to create apps that are story oriented and have a narrative. Rarely do they include any scoring.
Google Inc. is also trying to appeal to girls’ creative side with a $50 million Made with Code website that teaches them how to use basic coding to mix music, make bracelets and do other projects.
Made with Code also provides an online coding community where girls can share their creativity. Additionally, it lists local events like coding workshops and app camps, and it offers resources for parents.
Creating Role Models
Just as important as its creative aspects, Code.org’s Frozen tutorial connects two strong, outcome-driven heroines with computer science, Akmal says, providing powerful role models for young girls.
Code.org is also intentional about using women and girls—from models to engineers to students—in its instructional videos, she says. The nonprofit further spotlights female engineers who use coding to do things outside the technology industry, like making improvements in health and medicine. In fact, more than 60 percent of computer science jobs are in fields outside technology, according to Code.org.
Google’s Made with Code site also features both mentors and makers—girls who are actually using code in creative ways. That includes Brittany Wenger, a Duke University student who is using coding to fight breast cancer by writing a program that makes the disease easier to detect.
To reinforce that point, Code.org’s instructional units for middle-school girls, who are more aware of gender stereotypes, use computer science to solve math and social science problems rather than offering the subject as a stand-alone course.
The nonprofit advocates for including computer science in all school curriculums along with math and other core subjects.
“It’s not just about putting programs in front of girls. It’s about making it a foundational part of learning,” Akmal says.
Changing the Culture
Teaching girls about the different ways they can use computer science is an important first step in addressing larger issues that can discourage women from tech careers.
Although the technology industry actually hires women at the same rates at which they graduate with computer science degrees, the catch is convincing female employees to stick around, says Akmal, who started out as a product manager at Microsoft Corp.
In her experience, women start feeling disenfranchised around the five-year mark in their careers when they begin to advance into middle management. To make the culture of coding more positive for girls and women, she offers the following tips:
1. Increase the pipeline. Getting girls interested in coding can help companies hire more women in computer science positions and, in turn, create more diverse workplaces.
“When you get enough women in a group, the culture evolves,” says Akmal, “and it starts to create an environment that is much more conducive to retaining women.”
2. Set corporate diversity goals. The tech industry is highly outcome and goal driven, says Akmal, so why not set goals for diversity as well?
“Unless it’s a goal that’s quantifiable, diversity is never going to get the energy that it deserves,” she says.
3. Involve men. Diversity is not just a women’s issue, Akmal says.
“I really think the technology industry needs to flip this on its head and have men championing the cause for diversity,” she says. “Once that happens, I really think you’ll see durable change.”
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.