When Katie Duff begins her senior year at The Overlake School this month, she will arrive to class with a new set of skills acquired during summer break. Duff typically spends her summers at a local pool, either working as a lifeguard or staying in shape to swim competitively. This year, however, she chose a different summertime activity — she learned to write computer code.
Duff was one of many high school junior and senior girls selected this summer to participate in a program offered by Girls Who Code, the national organization founded in 2012 that aims to close the gender gap in the computer science industry by offering free training programs and after-school clubs.
According to the organization, Girls Who Code will have trained 40,000 students in all 50 states by the end of this year, and currently helps operate more than 150 after-school clubs nationwide.
This year, Girls Who Code partnered with AT&T to offer its Summer Immersion Program on the Eastside. Over a seven-week period, Duff and 20 of her peers met — five days a week for seven hours each day — in a conference room inside a two-story, salmon-colored office building in Redmond that houses the AT&T Mobility Access & Integration Team to learn code, design websites, program robots, and build apps. Eleven cities nationwide hosted similar programs, training approximately 1,600 girls over the summer. The program is free, thanks largely to corporate partnerships (AT&T has contributed $3 million to Girls Who Code since 2014).
“This has been really awesome for me because everyone is starting from roughly the same spot, and there’s no judgment of ability level because everyone is struggling to understand the same concepts,” said Duff, 17, during a break following a team exercise that involved entering code into a laptop computer that, in turn, directed a small, three-wheeled robot to navigate the room’s obstacles of boxes, chairs, and tables. “It’s been really good for me to be able to explore computer science in a way that is really comfortable and inviting.”
Girls Who Code isn’t the only organization trying to close the tech industry’s gender gap.
This year, Microsoft hosted DigiGirlz Day events in two dozen U.S. cities, offering high school girls insight into tech careers, and DigiGirlz High Tech Summit events in seven U.S. cities, which afforded high school girls opportunities to tour tech campuses, attend educational workshops, and hear from female leaders and mentors.
And local organizations and programs such as the Association for Women in Computing, Ada Developers Academy, Techbridge Girls, Women in Tech, Girls In Tech, and others exist year-round to encourage women to pursue careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) industry.
This push for more female representation in computer sciences is curious when you consider the field’s early history is populated with female leaders. Most people consider Ada Lovelace, an early 18th-century English mathematician, the first computer programmer. Grace Hopper, a U.S. Navy rear admiral and mathematician, is credited with leading a team in 1952 that created the first tool that turned word-based directions into computer code. And the popular nonfiction book-turned-movie Hidden Figures documents the essential role of a team of African-American mathematicians working at NASA to help put the first astronauts on the moon.
“When coding kind of started as a profession, it was actually geared more towards women. It was actually dominated by women,” said Mikayla Konst, a Girls Who Code instructor who graduated from the University of Rochester this year with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and a Bachelor of Arts degree in linguistics. Konst was hired by Google to work as a software engineer at the company’s Kirkland location, but delayed her start date so she could spend the summer teaching the Girls Who Code summer session in Redmond. “The perception of coding (then) was that’s not where the real thinking is. The actual thinking was in building the actual robots and rockets, and the coding was seen as this secondary thing. It was just telling the robot what to do — not a big deal.”
The perception changed, however, and coding became a male-dominated field.
How did this happen?
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the number of computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded to women dropped from 36 percent to 18 percent between 1983 and 2009. In 2016, approximately 26 percent of the computing workforce was women.
Sexual discrimination is also a factor. Elephant In The Valley, a widely cited 2016 survey of more than 200 female workers with at least 10 years of experience in the tech industry, noted that 60 percent of respondents had experienced unwanted sexual advances; 65 percent of these women received advances from a superior, with half receiving advances more than once.
Three years ago, National Public Radio’s Planet Money noted that, beginning in 1984, the number of women graduating with computer science degrees dropped, while the number of women earning medical, law, and physical science degrees climbed. That was the same year personal computers loaded with video games targeted at boys began to arrive in U.S. homes. Increasingly, boys were associated with computers, while girls were not, and when it came time to select a college major, boys were already familiar with computers, thanks to their introductions in the home.
“You can’t be what you can’t see. Literary representation matters,” said Kelly Parisi, head of marketing and communications at Girls Who Code. “One of the best ways to spark girls’ interest is to share stories of girls who look like them. We are all very familiar with the image of a male programmer in a hoodie. What we want to show are images of relatable girls, coding.”
It’s an image embraced by 15-year-old Gabriela Callero, a junior at Edmonds-Woodway High School. This year’s Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program spurred her to re-evaluate her college and career plans.
“For a really long time, I wanted to go into medicine,” she said. “Now I am seeing that not only is this a valuable skill, but you can combine it with so many other careers, and it can help you get up in the ranks in that career. If I wanted to go into medicine, I could use this and develop bionic limbs or something like that. It’s really cool because it meshes with a lot of the things that I’m interested in.”