When Francesca Colombo walked into her high school’s Advanced Placement computer science class, one of the boys looked up and said, “I think you’re in the wrong class. Do you know this is AP computer science?”
Colombo doesn’t think the remark was intended to be malicious, but it could have done real damage.
“If I didn’t already have some tech background,” the 19-year-old said, ”I don’t know that I would’ve been confident enough to continue.”
Now a sophomore studying computer science at Stanford University, Colombo earned that tech background through Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit working to close a persistent gender gap in technology with a series of summer camps and programs that teach girls to code.
Founded in 2012, the group is on track to expose 10,000 middle school and high school girls in 40 states to computer-science education through clubs and camps by the end of 2015. At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference last week, the group announced an alumni network for graduates of its programs. Backed by nearly $3 million in funding from AT&T, Prudential Foundation, and Adobe, the network aims to give the young women who have attended Girls Who Code programs a clear path for pursuing careers in technology.
“We felt like the alumni network was the way to keep women in the pipeline so they can be professionals,” Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, told Next America.
The dearth of women in technology jobs has been well-documented and criticized, prompting companies such as Twitter to pledge to increase the number of female employees. (Women made up 13 percent of Twitter’s tech workforce before its recent layoffs.) But one of the major obstacles is that the percentage of computer-science graduates who are women has declined from around 37 percent in 1984 to about 18 percent today.
When girls are in middle school, nearly three-quarters express an interest in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet, less than 1 percent of high school girls seriously consider computer science as a college major. But Girls Who Code says 90 percent of its graduates have declared—or plan to declare—a major or a minor in computer science, largely because they were hooked on the idea early.
Saujani hopes that by creating an alumni network of peers and mentors more girls will maintain their interest in tech careers as they progress through college and into the workforce.
Girls Who Code also announced partnerships with 20 tech companies—including Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft—that have pledged to offer paid internships to program alumni. The goal, Saujani said, is to make the college-to-career pathway as seamless as possible.
While it’s good publicity for companies that are criticized for having overwhelmingly white and male employees to sign on, it’s also a proactive way to keep promises to hire more women.
“We’re always looking to continue to build the talent pool and this is a way we can ensure the pipeline of girls who code continues to expand,” Marissa Shorenstein, New York state president of AT&T, said by phone from the Grace Hopper conference celebrating women in computing. Shorenstein added that it’s “incumbent” on her company to “support programs that add to the pipeline.”
Colombo thinks the new alumni network and company partnerships will make it easier for her to find support during challenging classes.
Colombo struggled with a class last year and thought she might not be cut out for computer science. She reached out to Girls Who Code advisors, who helped her to make the difficulty a learning experience.
“What I’ve seen in high school and college,” she added, “is people are interested in the beginning and then kind of get intimidated by classes or feel like they’re not at the same level as everyone, which I kind of see as just a perception issue. I think guys sometimes find it easier to come back from failure and move on, where girls feel more easily discouraged in technology, especially when they don’t see that many girls in their classes that they can relate to.”
The alumni network and company partnerships are among national efforts to get and keep girls interested in coding.
- Coding boot camp Fullstack Academy just announced it will open a school—the Grace Hopper Academy—to train women for tech fields.
- The Obama administration has pushed STEM education for women and people of color, and recently revealed that some students will be able to use federal aid to pay for coding boot camps and other nontraditional classes. Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced ALL in STEM, a new initiative to encourage women to pursue STEM careers.
As more jobs require technical skills, there is growing concern that the U.S. is not producing enough college graduates who are qualified for tech jobs. Getting more women into STEM fields could help address the issue.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.