One of the biggest goals of the VISTA Code Corps program is to give kids who would be less likely to participate in computer science, including girls, a chance to start working with CS. In my time as a VISTA, I’ve had the privilege of attending a few different trainings on including girls in computer science as well as STEM. Here is some of what I’ve learned.
Women are Badly Underrepresented in Technology.
According to the Wall Street Journal, women make up about 20% of the technology workers in nine of the biggest tech companies. eBay has the best percentage, at 24%, and the numbers go as low as 13%. This isn’t changing for the better, either. Look at the chart below, and you’ll see that the percentage of women pursuing computer science has been dropping since the 80s, despite the relative equalization of several other historically male-dominated fields.
Encouragement and Exposure are Key.
In their study, Women Who Choose Computer Science, Google identified four key controllable factors that lead to women choosing to pursue a career in computer science.
- Social Encouragement is the positive reinforcement that a girl receives from friends and family in the pursuit of computer science. Young women are half as likely as young men to receive positive messages from those around them regarding computer science.
- Self Perception is a girl’s perception of her own ability to succeed in mathematics and problem-solving skills that are important in computer science.
- Early Exposure is access to computer science earlier in life. The earlier a girl gets a chance to interact with computer science, the more likely she is to view it as interesting and feel a sense of familiarity and competence.
- Career Perception is the perception that a girl has of the field of computer science. Young women who have not had experience with computer science outside of popular media often have a skewed, negative perception of what the field actually involves, and see it as something that they have no interest in.
Google’s results are encouraging: they found that when separated from these factors, other factors such as race or economic background have minimal effect on whether a young woman chooses to pursue computer science. This doesn’t mean it’s a completely level playing field though: kids from disadvantaged economic backgrounds are less likely to have access to early exposure and less likely to receive encouragement from those around them (due to lower access). Young women of color are more likely to fall victim to what we call Stereotype Threat (more on that in a bit). But, if we provide opportunities to young women that will provide these four key factors, any young woman is likely to choose and succeed in computer science.
Stereotype Threat is the effect that one’s belief in their own chances to succeed has on their actual success. Studies show that if someone is told that a group they belong to isn’t good at something, they are less likely to succeed in that area. Take a look at this chart:
This chart shows the results from the same math test when administered to two different groups, with an offhand comment made by the proctor about how different genders usually perform on the test. The group that was told that both genders perform equally reflected that expectation, while the group that was told that men do better reflected that. What this means is that youth are more likely to succeed in computer science when they perceive it as a field that people that are like them succeed in. When most of us think about people in tech, we picture a white man. The big names in computer science: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg; all of these figures put a white, male face to computer science. If we want girls to believe that they can be computer scientists, we need to show them role models that they can identify with.
Analysis shows us that girls are often spoken to differently than boys. Even when they are small children, we tend to praise girls and boys in different ways: we praise girls in a way that promotes a fixed mindset while we praise boys in a way that promotes a growth mindset.
Studies show that girls tend to receive compliments based on how they are or what they’ve done, while boys tend to receive compliments based on how hard they’ve worked. Girls are more likely to be told they are good or bad at things, and boys are more likely to receive the message that they need to work harder if they’re not succeeding right away. When children internalize the mindset that they are either good at something or they’re not, it makes it very difficult to succeed in a field like computer science where making mistakes is a huge part of making progress. Promoting a growth mindset is a positive decision whenever one is working with children, but it’s especially vital when we are trying to encourage girls to participate in computer science.
If we’re designing any program that aims to encourage girls to pursue computer science, we know that the most successful program will include all of the following criteria:
- The program provides an opportunity for socialization regarding the work being done. Youth should get a chance to see what each other are doing and give each other social encouragement.
- The program allows kids to show their parents what they’ve done. Family encouragement is even more important than that of kids’ peers.
- The program targets youth at a young age. As we’ve seen, the earlier girls get experience with computer science, the more likely they are to pursue it. Google identifies the group that has the development to handle complex skills like programming but is still young enough to give good access as 9 to 14 year olds.
- The program demonstrates the relevance of computer science. To change the career perception of computer science among girls, we must show why it is relevant to them. Showing how computer science is involved in areas that young women are already interested in can help combat the negative stereotype of programming as a job where one just sits on a computer all day working on extremely abstract, boring code.
- The program promotes a growth mindset. Mistakes are an essential part of any coding. Emphasizing that making a mistake does not mean that one is “bad” at coding or a failure is essential to kids’ continued participation.
- The program provides role models for all participants. Showing people who look like the girls succeeding in computer science goes a long way towards combating the cultural perception that some groups can’t succeed in tech. When we fight the stereotype threat, we allow youth to succeed more easily.
I’m really glad to know that the program I’m primarily working with, Google CS First, meets all these criteria. But, I believe that our Clubs need to go beyond CS First and bring other computer science opportunities to our youth. We’ll need to pay careful attention, and make sure we achieve as much of the above as possible when we’re designing these programs, so that we can make a lasting impact and allow our youth to succeed!