'Girls Who Code' Is on a Mission to Close the Computer Science Gender Gap

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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Women dominate social media consumption, making up a whopping 82 percent of Pinterest users, 64 percent of Facebook users, and 58 percent of Twitter users. But with the number of female computer science grads at a mere 14 percent, lower now than than the high of 40 percent in the mid-1980s, the opportunity for women to switch from social media consumers to tech creators is looking pretty slim.

Fortunately, the number of initiatives focused on boosting the number of women and girls with computer science chops is on the rise. One of the newest, the nonprofit Girls Who Code, kicked off its inaugural program on July 9 with an 8-week intensive summer camp in New York City. The goal? Providing "intensive instruction in robotics, web design, and mobile development with high-touch mentorship led by the industry's top female developers and entrepreneurs" to 20 high school-age girls from low income backgrounds.

Each girl completed an application and went through a formal review process to get into the program. The teen participants range in age from 13- to 17-years-old, come from 12 different ethnic backgroundsincluding recent immigrants from Senegal, Yemen, and Bangladeshand hail from all five boroughs of New York City and from northern New Jersey. Some are even riding the train for an hour-and-a-half each way to get to the summer program's Midtown Manhattan location. Such long commutes have prompted Girls Who Code to start a technology book drive so that the girls have relevant material to read as they travel.

Former New York City deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code after an unsuccessful 2010 bid for Congress. Getting out into the community during her run for public office opened Saujani's eyes to the disparities between the technology available in the schools attended by kids from Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side and schools in poorer communities. Indeed, says Saujani, 70 percent of kids attending New York City's public schools don't have access to a computer on campus.

Given that 1.4 million computer science-related job openings are expected by 2018, such inequality doesn't bode well for the U.S. economy. We're projected to have only enough computer science grads to fill 29 percent of those job openings. Saujani's on a mission to close the gender gap in STEM education and ensure that girls are in a position to pursue a career in one of those fields. This year's summer camp is just the beginning: Saujani and Girls Who Code executive director Kristin Titus plan to expand Girls Who Code into a nationwide movement in 2013.

Doing so will be easier with the backing of the tech heavyweights—like Google, eBay, and Twitter—that have thrown their weight behind the program. Sara Haider, an engineer at Twitter, writes on the service's blog that the company wanted to support Girls Who Code because "if we want there to be more women who pursue careers in engineering and computer science and feel welcome in these fields, we have to work on ways to increase the number of women studying engineering—it's that simple." Moving the teens participating in Girls Who Code from consumers to creators is on Twitter's mind, too. "We certainly hope to hire at least some of the participants in a few years," adds Haider.

Photo via Girls Who Code