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Girls Who Code: The Real Reason Women Only Earn 18% of CS Degrees

The tech world is missing out on nearly half of the population of talent. From the classrooms to corporations, why aren’t more women on the path to building revolutionary software and hardware?
Women generally earn more undergraduate and graduate degrees than men, and yet only 18% of Computer Science (CS) graduates are women. Everyone knows this translates to the workforce, but Pinterest’s Tracy Chou created a public Google Spreadsheet of top tech companies’ diversity numbers that shows just how grim the gender ratio is. Although each case is different, the grander issue can be traced back to traditional gender roles. Women are naturally drawn to careers that are perceptively nurturing, creative and feminine. Just look at the jobs that are currently most dominated by women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Most common jobs women hold
Statistically, women are largely devoted to helping others, like healthcare support and education. Since our society holds on to the misperception that writing software and building revolutionary technology is mechanic, masculine and mundane, few women are drawn to tech jobs.

It Starts with Education During Formative Years

There are many reasons for the dearth of young women in CS classes, but the problem stems from a broken education system. Too many states in the U.S., for instance, do not prepare teachers well enough to teach CS in high school.
Take a look at this map that illustrates the states that lack resources to offer CS certificates to teachers. A whopping 46% of states don’t offer a certification specifically to teach CS in high schools. In other words, these states are relying on math and science teachers to expose young students to the world of programming.
States prohibit CS certificate (1)
There simply isn’t a solid, proven educational system in place to help educate and expose young women to programming in an accessible way. Currently, the state of California does not provide or allow teachers to get a single subject certification in teaching computer science in high school. On top of that, the state that houses the mecca of tech, doesn’t offer a single CS course in 56% of high schools.
Without a foundational support system in the classroom, most young students typically pick up programming as a result of their personal passion or through the support of their family who may be familiar with the field. And the few women who do make it into a CS university classrooms often have a tough time speaking up. A survey by Piazza found that women answer more questions than men, but only if they’re anonymous. “Female CS students answer 37% fewer questions on average compared to their male peers,” Piazza reports on their blog. There’s definitely a confidence gap for women in CS classrooms.
Women answering questions (1)
What’s worse is, as women graduate to higher level coursework, their confidence and likelihood to answer questions in class gets dimmer. This is alarming because building great software is a highly collaborative profession in the real world. Why are women more afraid to speak up?

Outside of School, the Public Perception of Girls in Tech is Discouraging

For women, society doesn’t operate in a way that encourages females to get involved in computing. All too often, women are seen as tech illiterate compared to their male counterparts. There are attempts to appeal to women, but most are distasteful at best.
The worst example is the 2010 book “Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer” that tells young girls they can design computer games, but they’ll “need Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” The sheer existence of a book promoting helplessness for women in tech is infuriating. Danica McKellar’s books, like “Kiss My Math,” are another breed of distasteful stereotypes for women in STEM. It is not ideal that McKellar resorts to selling math using quizzes and boy drama in order to pique the interest of girls. After all, we are not turning math books into sports magazines to cater to boys. While some women find her books, like “Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape,” to be condescending, Amazon reviews seem to suggest the books are working out for at least a segment of girls, as CEO of CareerCup Gayle Laakmann McDowell points out. Some parents requested McKellar to write more books because their daughters were receptive to them.
The problem with McKellar’s books is that they may appeal to certain types of young girls, but not all. “There should be efforts to court all types of women. We may all be female, but we’re not the same,” says Ashley Mooney, a former computer science major.

‘Beauty & Joy of Computing’

While this mentality is deeply ingrained into the fabric of society, there are some commendable programs that have found success in encouraging more women to aspire for tech jobs. Making classes more approachable, collaborative and engaging has been proven to produce results.
Here’s a fascinating example. When the University of California, Berkeley’s (Cal) computer science department changed the title of “Intro to Computer Science” to “Beauty and Joy of Computing,” sign ups from female students shot up! In fact, in 2014, Cal’s CS program became the first CS dept. to have more women than men in the history of CS courses at a ratio of 106 women to 104 men. It just goes to show that presenting computer programming in a more creative light will draw more young ladies to tech.
Consider Eva Snyder, a child musical prodigy who has been playing the violin since she was 3 years old. Growing up, computer science could not have been further from her mind. She’s a singer-songwriter and was set on majoring in music in college.
But her family encouraged her to just try CS101 and a wearable electronics class. That class helped her fall in love with building technology and taught her that computer science isn’t just about coding. Inventing new products is actually a huge outlet for creativity. “I like to live by my life motto: “Make an app or a rap.”  This motto is designed to capture the daily creativity we all overlook,” Snyder says.
Today, Snyder is a passionate programmer and we’re proud to say she’s a HackerRank CodeSprint Ambassador at Mount Holyoke University. As a leader in her community, Snyder proactively teaches workshops to offer young women more exposure to the creativity, impact and collaboration behind creating a piece of software.

There’s Power in More Choices

We have to stay away from the boring CS syllabuses created decades ago. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Computer Science Department, for instance, the team conducted multiple years of research in curriculum design, psychology and other areas, and found that the power of choice was one majorly effective strategy. The rate of female incoming CS and software engineering students increased from about 10% in 2010 to roughly 29% in 2014.
For freshmen CS majors, the very first class they take is “Computing in Context.” They’re allowed to choose between various computing classes, like art, game design, music composition, mobile devices, robotics and cyber security. “This curriculum innovation and choice does not exist in any other university in the US,” says Dr. Ignatios Vakalis, department chair professor at Cal Poly’s CS department.
Another proven, choice-driven strategy comes from Harvey Mudd College. To make CS more appealing to women, Harvey Mudd segregates classes based on previous skill level. Since boys are generally more exposed to programming at a younger age, they often have years of experience by the time they’re in college compared to their female classmates. The community and support from people that are at the same level offers a safer space to ask questions and participate, compared to classrooms that mix newbies with high-level programmers.
Harvey Mudd’s experiments, Dr. Vakalis’ in-depth game-changing research, Cal’s revamped syllabus and Snyder’s proactive contributions to her community as a mentor, along with the numerous existing similar programs, are a great start in changing the public perception of girls. Although the problem is deeply ingrained in society, it’s crucial to take notice of these milestones, learn from them and push to move forward. After all, there are numerous strong, admirable women in tech who have surmounted the naysayers and rejected any stereotypes or gender roles constructed by society.

  • Susan Wojcicki made a huge impact on Google’s ad products before she became the CEO of the world’s largest video platform: YouTube.
  • Delfina Eberly runs all of the data science operations at Facebook.
  • As CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman grew the team from 30 employees to over 15,000. She’s now the CEO of the second largest technology company in the world: Hewlett-Packard.
  • Padmasree Warrior drives innovation and oversees strategic partnerships at Cisco as the chief technology and strategy officer, leading a team of over 24,000 engineers.
  • Sheryl Sandberg has made waves as the first female board of directors and COO at Facebook.
  • Virginia Rometty worked her way up from systems engineer to CEO of IBM.

By making an effort to boost exposure in schools at an early age, young women everywhere can grow up to join the ranks of these accomplished women in tech. We need to present software engineering as an exciting profession that has immeasurable opportunity to be creative and help millions upon millions of lives. Schools need to highlight these attributes if we want more women in CS classes.

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