2137. According to a recent study, that’s when women will reach parity with men in the publication of computer science research. What’s more, the number of women entering the field of computer science is actually on the decline. In 1984, women accounted for 37 percent of computer science majors in college, but today account for only 18 percent of computer science graduates. These trends are even more worrisome given the economic opportunities that computer science training will offer in the decades ahead. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for software developers are projected to grow 24 percent between 2016 and 2026, and similar growth is projected in dozens of jobs that fall under the category of computer science and engineering. But women make up only 20 percent of the workforce in these fields and, as a result, many are likely to miss emerging career opportunities related to computer science.
The disappointing number of women working in computer science and related technology fields isn’t for lack of trying. Top colleges focus on attracting women to these subjects, and tech executives continually talk about building a better pipeline into their industry for women and minorities. But the problem still remains – because we don’t start early enough and, by and large, we’re not tailoring our efforts to school-aged girls. This week’s nationwide focus on Computer Science Education is the perfect chance to redouble efforts to address this problem and give our girls what they deserve.
First, we must start the conversation earlier, even before kindergarten. Kids are barely walking when they interact with the digital world and establish their relationship with technology and computers. Parents and teachers should let young girls know that it’s not just okay but encouraged to be interested in computer science, engineering, and everything related to that ubiquitous device in their hands. We need to actively build their enthusiasm for these subjects. Moreover, let’s avoid thinking “this is too confusing for such a young mind,” particularly with girls. The goal, early on, is to nurture her natural curiosity enough for her to wonder why it works the way it does.
We also need to more proactively challenge gender-based stereotypes and cultural norms that surround computer science and technology. We’ve come a long way, but the lasting legacy of gender bias has a strong influence on young minds – particularly in STEM fields. Doubtful? The next time you’re in a toy store or shopping online, explore the computer- or tech-oriented options. From the packaging and marketing images to the placement of products on the aisle shelf, you’ll see subtle and not so subtle signals that these toys are meant for boys. Slowly, new products have hit the market to address this problem, like Roominate, a building kit tailored for girls, and Boolean Box, which teaches girls to code. But breaking down stereotypes that deter girls from diving into computer science will take a lot more than just a few innovative, female-targeted products.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to rethink computer science education so that it’s most conducive for both girls and boys. There is no difference between what boys and girls can learn. The key factor is in how they learn best and, more specifically, what’s most effective for school-aged girls studying coding, robotics, and related computer science topics. Indeed, research shows that all-girls schools, which tailor their courses to girls’ needs, produce graduates who are more confident in their computer science skills and more likely to study and pursue careers in computer-science and related STEM fields. With this in mind, educators should consider how their lessons are structured, the types of learning tools they provide, and how they adapt class discussions and projects to encourage girls’ excitement for these subjects. This includes actively including female role models in their computer science curriculum, so that young girls (and boys) see women coders and engineers as a regular part of life. This not only ensures girls learn computer science more effectively, but helps them develop a true passion for the field and imagine themselves as future tech leaders.
Ultimately, the solution to closing the ever-present gender gap in computer science doesn’t just lie in just creating more opportunities in these fields. It requires giving girls, from a young age, the self-assurance and passion to aspire to the countless opportunities that already exist – and the tools necessary to succeed when they get there. Computer Science Education Week is an ideal time to start this important work.
Marisa Porges is Head of School at The Baldwin School, an independent pre-K through grade 12 all-girls school outside of Philadelphia, and author of the forthcoming book “What Girls Need” (Viking Press, Summer 2020).