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Twenty teenage girls gathered in the conference room of a Tribeca skyscraper recently, the latest class of graduates from Girls Who Code, a program that aims to increase female participation in an industry best known for two stereotypes: code-smashing brogrammers and Silicon Valley extras.
Wearing colorful summer dresses, the girls huddled and giggled in small groups between showing off their final projects to their parents in the form of mobile apps. Handwritten block letters on poster board announced the names of those apps, with titles like “Arctic Rescue,” “Space Cleaners,” and “Don’t Push My Buttons.”
Sakina Ali, a sixteen-year-old from Queens, says her little brother is a big tech geek — she proudly calls him “the epitome of a computer scientist” — but says she didn’t envision a similar future for herself. “Then I got this chance to do Girls Who Code,” she says, “and I jumped for it.
“I never thought of computer science as a job opportunity in the future,” says Ali, “but after this program, boy, has that changed.” After the seven-week program Ali wants to major or minor in computer science when she gets to college. Ali says she hopes to work at a company like Google as a programmer.
“We’re building a movement,” Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, said during her speech at the graduation. She stood in front of a projector screen displaying the Girls Who Code logo (“girls who” in curly cursive, “code” sharp and angular) and explained how major applications like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all designed by men and used by women.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world that’s run by men,” Saujani remarked.
Girls Who Code isn’t the only effort to bring women back to computer science. The Flatiron School, an all-ages boot camp for coding and software development with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, recently introduced the Kode With Karlie Scholarship for pre-college students. A former Victoria’s Secret Angel and NYU student, Karlie Kloss wanted to share with young girls her own experience of learning to code because she never had that opportunity when she was in high school, says Adam Enbar, CEO of Flatiron.
“What’s particularly compelling about ‘Kode With Karlie’ is that it gives people a role model who supports this and who’s not necessarily what you would traditionally think of as a software engineer,” Enbar said.
However, Ashley Williams, a developer at Mozilla and former code teacher, says that the biggest problem is not getting girls interested in coding, but keeping them in the tech industry. Forty-one percent of women (compared to 17 percent of men) leave tech companies after ten years of experience. At a midlevel point in their careers (between ten and twenty years), 56 percent of women leave the tech industry. In 2008, women in tech earned an average salary of $70,370; men earned $80,357.
“The industry is hostile to women,” Williams said. “I worry about people who grow as developers in these safe spaces [like Girls Who Code or Kode With Karlie] because the industry itself is very much not a safe space. People are extremely biased.”
When asked about preparing its students for what might feel like an unwelcome workplace, a rep for Girls Who Code said the program also teaches interpersonal and business skills.
Williams says that women face all manner of discrimination, and eventually drop out of tech. “At conferences, people will ask you who your husband is at the conference, or ask if you’re a marketer,” she said.
The tech industry — comprising mostly upper-middle-class white and Asian men — lacks diversity on several levels, according to Williams. There’s a notion that a computer science education is bad for poor people, people of color, and people who are older.
Since 2012, the Nomad-based Girls Who Code has taught about 10,000 students in 34 states. Ninety percent of graduates go on to major or minor in computer science in college, while only 70 percent had wanted to do so before enrolling in the program. “Girls Who Code is about closing the gender gap in computer science and technology,” Saujani tells the Voice.
In the past 30 years, the number of women in tech has declined from about 37 percent of computer science graduates in the early Eighties to 18 percent today. Many of the first computer programmers were female. The term “software engineering” was even coined by a woman: Margaret Hamilton, a computer scientist and systems engineer. But around 1984, the number of women in computer science began to drop.
According to the October 2014 Planet Money episode “When Women Stopped Coding,” in 1984 you couldn’t succeed in a computer science course in college unless you already had a computer at home. By then, the narrative that computers were toys for boys had seeped in to advertising and, eventually, the public consciousness. Personal computers became associated with the stereotype of the geeky, male hacker. Alienated and discouraged, waves of girls dropped out of computer science and progressed in other fields like law or medicine.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in the next decade, job opportunities in technology will grow by 22 percent — faster than all other jobs in the professional sector. “For decades, we’ve pushed girls away from math and science. We need to make sure we’re not leaving girls behind,” said Saujani. “It makes me mad that people say that girls and boys are wired differently.” That, she says, is simply not true.
Already, there’s a lack of female role models in the industry for girls learning to code, says Adriana Gascoigne, CEO and founder of Girls in Tech. “There are even fewer role models for minority women in tech. It makes it more difficult to visualize a future within the tech industry, with mentorship and support along the way,” Gascoigne said. “Additionally, it becomes harder for minority women to assimilate in an environment with all white men. An imbalanced company culture affects product development, compensation parity, along with flexible work environments, training and benefit programs available for women, along with internal policies.”
Many sources who spoke with the Voice agree that diversity in the tech industry is a necessity. “If your engineering team is made up of one type of person, the products you build are not relevant to all types of people,” said Enbar of Flatiron. “There are significant competitive advantage for companies that are more diverse.”
For her part, Ali says Girls Who Code “changed everything” for her. Now she doesn’t think of herself as “just a girl who codes,” but a future computer scientist — like the guest speakers she met through the program.
“Here you get to meet people, you get to talk to them, all these inspiring women,” says Ali. “This is, like, the best thing ever.”