Why are so few girls interested in computer science?

The gender gap in computer science is growing. In 1984, women represented 37 percent of all computer science graduates. Today, that number has decreased to only 12 percent. At the same time, the U.S. is running into a shortage of qualified developers because large segments of the population are not considering careers in technology, and the number of interested women and minorities is even smaller.

Seventy percent fewer students have majored in computer science since 2000, according to Computing Research Association data, and the number women studying computer science has declined by 80 percent. The Higher Education Research Institute determined that of the only 1 percent of students majoring in computer science in 2009, 0.3 percent of those were women. By 2020, universities are expected to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of the 1.4 million computer specialist job openings.

According to data collected by the National Center for Women in Technology, only 25 percent of computing-related jobs in 2009 were held by women – and only 2 percent of those women were African-American, 4 percent were Asian, and just 1 percent were Latina. Women of color represent less than 3 percent of people in technology fields, according to Women 2.0.

But why? A 2009 Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology report suggests that lack of access to technology and computer science classes in schools, and a lack of role models and mentors, are among the barriers that make it difficult for women and people of color to enter – and to stay in – computer and technology fields.

Underrepresented students are more likely to be in school districts lacking the resources for a rigorous computer science curriculum, the report found, and unequal access to technology and curriculum starting at the K-12 level creates an ongoing disadvantage. In addition, the perception that computer science is a “white male profession” discourages girls and minorities from entering the field, especially girls of color.

On top of this, women and minorities who pursue computer science and engineering often experience feelings of isolation or exclusion caused by being the only woman, minority, or minority woman in their work environment.

Isolation is a key factor for a higher attrition rate among women and minorities, Director of the Diversity in Information Technology Institute at UNC Charlotte Teresa Dahlberg said to the SD Times. And nearly half of all minorities leave technology jobs to enter other occupations. In a room full of 25 engineers, nonprofit startup Girls Who Code explains, only 3 of them are women.

What it is not

It is not that boys are innately better in science and math than girls, said researchers who analyzed international tests and found that girls have the same ability as boys to succeed in math and science in a 2012 study called “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.”

“If you take the averages worldwide, you do not see any gender gaps – boys and girls perform about the same, on average,” they found. The research suggested, instead, that cultural and social factors affected whether someone was good at math, not gender.

The study analyzed data from 86 countries through international standardized tests for mathematics and science. They found that in many countries, there existed no gap between girls’ and boys’ average scores. In other countries, including the U.S., they found that a gap existed but was narrowing with time.

In the 1970s, for example, there were 13 boys for every one girl who scored exceptionally high on the SAT math test. By the 1990s, the ratio had decreased to three boys for every one girl.

Interestingly, countries that ranked higher on gender equity – how women performed relative to men in education, health, political power and economic participation – had higher math scores in general for both girls and boys. The U.S., comparatively, ranked 31 out of 128 for gender equity. (Iceland ranked as the top gender equal country in 2012, and Finland ranked second.)

Another 2012 study by the Association for Psychological Science concluded that not only do women and girls have strong skills in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but that they have strong skills in other areas such as verbal skills that may cause them to choose career paths other than those in STEM.

However, whether girls actually lack interest in STEM fields is questionable. According to Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, 74 percent of girls in middle school express interest in STEM, however, when choosing a college major, 0.3 percent of high school girls choose computer science.

“Much has changed since my college days, but there’s still a dearth of African-American women in science, technology, engineering and math professions, an absence that cannot be explained by say, a lack of interest in these fields,” says Kimberly Bryant, Senior Biotech Manager and Founder of Black Girls Code. “Lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits.”

Closing the gap

Recently, there has been a crop up of new programs intended to help close the gender gap in technology careers. Many of these programs focus on intervening early, when girls are still exploring what they want to study, with the hope that earlier exposure will lead more women to choose technology and engineering fields.

Manhattan-based nonprofit group, Girls Who Code, for example, was launched just last year, and offers an eight-week program where high school girls learn software programming, public speaking, product development and other skills to prepare them for jobs in the technology industry.

Black Girls Code, a Bay Area organization that launched in April 2011, aims to increase the young women of color (African American, Latina, and Native American) in the field of digital and computer technology.

Founder of Black Girls Code Bryant says that although there are many organizations which focus on girls, women and technology, most of them are lacking when it comes to attracting girls or women of color to their programs. “It is overwhelming white, Asian, and affluent,” she said in a 2011 interview with Loop 21.

The girls in Black Girls Code, who range in age from about 6 to 13, spend six weeks learning about the basics of programming at the facilities of the 100% College Preparatory Institute in San Francisco in a KidsRuby class and taking trips to leading tech companies, including Facebook and Google. They learn to use a computer language called Scratch to make a simple game, and to create graphics that illustrate their name and personality.

Girl Develop It is an international organization with the aim of providing affordable and accessible programs to women who want to learn software development. “Our vision is to create a network of empowered women who feel confident in their abilities to code and build beautiful web and mobile applications,” they write. “By teaching women around the world from diverse backgrounds to learn software development, we can help women improve their careers and confidence in their everyday lives.”

Hackbright Academy – a 10 week software development training program exclusively for women, based in San Francisco, CA – was “designed to help women become awesome programmers.” They claim to teach command line, python, javascript, html and css, git, flask, django, pair programming, sql/orms/nosql, deployment, and interview skills. After the program, they introduce the graduates to local Silicon Valley startup companies looking to expand their engineering teams.

Breaking the stereotype

“Early on, societal stereotypes and unconscious bias reinforce the perception that girls and minorities are not as good as white boys at STEM disciplines,” explains Caroline Simard, Ph.D., in her 2009 report for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology “Obstacles and Solutions for Underrepresented Minorities in Technology.” “Due to often unconscious bias, parents and teachers are likely to discourage girls and minorities from pursuing computer-related activities… For women of color, the double bias of gender and race puts them at a significant disadvantage when it comes to computer science and engineering.”

Black Girls Code and the others are aiming to break the stereotypical image of a computer programmer – which many kids identify as a white, geeky man sitting alone in front of a computer screen.

“That doesn’t resonate with most girls, especially elementary and middle school girls,” Bryant told CNN. “We do a lot of group work and pairs programming projects because they need that connection and collaboration. So that helps break down the stereotypes of always being alone.”

Getting more girls to code

“When I was first introduced to computer programming… I remember being excited by the prospects, and looked forward to embarking on a rich and rewarding career after college,” wrote Bryant. “But I also recall, as I pursued my studies, feeling culturally isolated: few of my classmates looked like me.”

“Imagine the impact that these curious, creative minds could have on the world with the guidance and encouragement others take for granted,” she said.

Bryant believes the key to getting more kids of color interested in STEM is providing them with the exposure to the many career choices STEM allows and a strong support network.

“I think more minority students neglect to pursue a career in STEM fields because of lack of exposure. They don’t generally see these fields as a career option and thus they don’t pursue a technical career path,” Bryant said in an interview with Loop 21. “This is why it is important to have more black tech founders and women tech founders in positions of influence so that minority students can find a role model with which they can identify. They have to see that this path is accessible to them in order to achieve it.”

The field needs diverse voices to serve an increasingly diverse population, says Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women in Technology.

“Computing is a creative endeavor, and when you have a diverse set of voices at the design table, you’re going to have people creating technology in different ways than if it was a homogenous group,” Sanders told CNN.

And indeed, studies show that diversity leads to better group decisions, creativity and innovation. Diversity brings different skills, perspectives and ideas to teams and companies that can create enhanced market opportunities, and overall better work.

“One of the things that’s true about the computing talent pipeline in this country is that it’s really in jeopardy,” Sanders said. “With the degrees we’re granting now, we’re only going to graduate enough people to fill a third of the jobs… We’re not going to fill this talent pipeline if we only go to the places where we’ve always been traditionally looking.”

Founder of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani, the daughter of two engineers who were refugees from Uganda, said she developed the idea for Girls Who Code when she was on a campaign trail running for Congress. As she traveled from school to school, she repeatedly saw computer science classrooms without a single girl in them.

“I saw the ability of technology to either enhance poverty or reduce it, and I saw girls not getting the same opportunities boys were,” she told the New York Times. “Back in the ’60s, you didn’t have gender parity in law or medicine, but something happened and women started opting into these professions. We have to do that in computer science.”