‘Girls Who Code’ Looks to Close the Tech Gender Gap

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A slight media kerfuffle broke out this week after The Daily Beast released its Digital Power Index, a list of the 100 most influential people in the tech world. The problem? Only seven of the 100 honorees were women. Out of the 54 judges responsible for choosing who was on the list, only 13 were women.

Outrage started bubbling up on Twitter, and The Daily Beast responded by inviting Rachel Sklar to comment on the lack of women on the list; she said, in part:

Either you think all these industries are dominated across the very top levels by predominantly white men because there are numerous deep-seated societal norms and institutional biases that make it more challenging for women and minorities to advance as quickly and as far as their white male counterparts … or you think that these lists merely reflect the fact that white dudes must just be better at everything.

The question is: How do we root out these biases and rewire norms?

Girls Who Code thinks it has the answer. This July, it’s kicking off a summer program in New York City where 20 girls — many from under-served communities — will spend eight hours a day for eight weeks learning how to code from female engineers, attending workshops and taking field trips to the offices of Google, Foursquare and Twitter.

“Some people say girls just aren’t interested in technology,” says Kristen Titus, executive director of Girls Who Code and former managing director of Jumo, a non-profit giving site founded by Facebook’s Chris Hughes. “Well they are. They care about it and they want to get involved”

Titus points out a strange divide in the world of technology. According to Girls Who Code, women use the Internet 17% more than men and create two-thirds of the content on social media sites, yet only 14% of computer science degrees are earned by women.

The yawning gender divide in the tech world isn’t just something that affects young women. It also has some pretty serious implications for future of American tech companies and the American economy in general, according to Girls Who Code.

“As a company, you’re not going to be able to out-innovate the competition if the people making your product aren’t the people who are using your product,” says Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and the former Deputy Public Advocate for New York City. “The reality is that there are jobs out there, we just don’t have enough engineers. Women have to be part of that growth.”

Several tech companies including Twitter, eBay and Gilt Groupe are partnering with the project and eventually Saujani hopes to create a Girls Who Code curriculum that companies can use to run similar programs of their own. The idea is to create a larger infrastructure that can encourage young women to pursue careers in technology and start companies of their own, which is especially important considering the anemic state of computer science education in high schools today — especially in low-income areas.

Of course, creating opportunities for pursuing technology is one thing; erasing long-held stereotypes and biases are another. For those who remember Forever 21’s “Allergic to Algebra” shirt, it’s pretty clear that there are strong social forces at work discouraging women from pursuing math and science.

“We almost encourage girls not to get into these fields,” says Saujani. “It’s not an aptitude issue.”

Despite the fact that girls’ math scores have recently evened out with boys’ scores, stereotypes don’t die easily in the minds of parents, teachers and, worst of all, the girls themselves. Even if they have access to the proper resources (which many of them don’t), they still have to fight harder than men to prove they belong.

“They don’t have access to role models,” says Titus. “They don’t have access to women who are running tech companies. They need to be able to envision themselves in these environments.”

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