Girls Who Code encourages STEM, one coding class at a time



James Martin / CNET

On July 12, 2014, Macie Cooper, then 15, made a strong statement about her future in her diary. It was final; she left nothing to the imagination.

“I officially decided that day that I would major in computer science,” Cooper wrote, while attending the Girls Who Code summer immersion program.

Four years later, Cooper made that commitment to herself, majoring in computer science and studio art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Cooper, who has a contagious self-confidence, says the seven-week program cemented his love of computer programming.

Macie Cooper, 19, studies computer science and art in a studio at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She participated in the Girls Who Code summer immersion program in 2014.

Macie Cooper, 19, studies computer science and art in a studio at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She participated in the Girls Who Code summer immersion program in 2014.

James Martin / CNET

“A lot of my activities thereafter have resulted from my participation in the program,” she said. “Because I had the support system, I had the knowledge and I had the confidence. “

Girls face countless obstacles in pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, a group of studies collectively known as STEM. These barriers include stereotypes about what girls should and shouldn’t study, gender biases, and often unresponsive climates for female students in science and engineering departments at colleges and universities.

Even though they find their way into STEM classes, girls say they don’t feel out of place. More than a quarter of middle school girls and a fifth of high school girls say they are too embarrassed to ask questions, study finds by Microsoft and KRC Research. In addition, 32% of college girls and 35% of high school girls say they do not feel supported by their teachers and classmates.

Girls who code aims to change that. The 6-year program strives to create welcoming spaces for girls interested in programming and to bridge the gender gap in technology. The association welcomed thousands of incoming grade 11 and 12 girls Across the country as part of its annual summer immersion program since 2012.

Participants are placed at companies such as Facebook, Ford, Twitter, and EA, where they receive hands-on computer training, visit leading technology companies, and interact with senior executives. They learn everything from mobile app development to robotics to web design. This year’s program at EA, which began June 18, ends Friday.

Girls Who Code organizers hope the program will encourage more tech companies, mostly male, to hire and retain employees from diverse backgrounds. America’s tech workforce is three quarter male, according to the Kapor Center, a nonprofit organization that supports women and people of color in STEM. The situation becomes more complex when racial and ethnic minorities are taken into account, with black and Latino employees making up around 7.4% and 8% of the workforce respectively, according to the report. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Allison Scott, director of research at the Kapor Center, said companies should recruit from larger pools of people, establish diverse boards of directors, create employee resource groups, and implement anti- bullying. She says there are good reasons to do it: Studies show that various companies do better than those that don’t.

McKinsey and company, a consulting firm, found that companies in the first quarter for gender diversity are 21% more likely to have above-average financial performance.

This is something that Girls Who Code partner companies, including EA, recognize.

“It’s a business imperative,” says Nadine Blackburn, head of inclusion, diversity and corporate social responsibility at EA. “You can be much more successful when you have [diversity], because you are expanding your footprint and being able to reach different audience groups. “

Nadine Blackburn is Head of Inclusion, Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility at EA.

Nadine Blackburn is Head of Inclusion, Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility at EA.

James Martin / CNET

Tackling the problem at its root

The disparity between girls ‘and boys’ involvement in STEM starts early. Girls’ interest in computers decreases between the ages of 12 and 14, according to a Google-Gallup study, just when the boys are more and more interested in the field.

There are notable differences between the classroom experiences of boys and girls. Boys are much more likely to have been told by teachers that they would be good at computers, according to the study. Girls are also less likely to feel proficient in STEM or to express confidence in their ability to learn computers. This often leads them to drop out of STEM classes, if they were not dissuaded from enrolling fully.

16-year-old Riddhi Mehta participates in EA's Girls Who Code summer immersion program.

16-year-old Riddhi Mehta participates in EA’s Girls Who Code summer immersion program.

James Martin / CNET

“It’s a little intimidating when there are only 15 boys for every five girls in the classroom,” says Riddhi Mehta, a 16-year-old participant in EA’s Girls Who Code program.

Stereotypes are another key issue, says Scott of the Kapor Center. The stereotype that women do not pursue careers in STEM or that they are unable to advance to managerial positions in these careers is common. Many girls don’t have access to female STEM role models and mentors, which can have a big impact on what they think they can do, she says.

And, of course, women are put off by the tech industry’s reputation for fostering bro culture, the toxic male workplace that’s been criticized on TV shows like Silicon Valley. Men often reject or talk about women, sometimes taking credit for their ideas. Often, companies simply fail to promote women to leadership positions, despite their performance.

Other programs are also working to promote young women in STEM, including Girls play games, a three-week camp that teaches girls ages 8 to 17 to code their own video games. Partner companies include Sony’s PlayStation group, Microsoft and its Xbox and Intel team. Model Karlie Kloss also runs a summer coding camp for girls ages 13-18 called Kode with Klossy, which takes place this year in 25 cities.

Start early

STEM initiatives have caught the attention of the country’s top office. Former president Computing for all by Barack Obama initiative launched in 2016 to promote computer science education from kindergarten to grade 12. President Donald Trump announced a federal informatics initiative last fall.

“Start all children early [in STEM] is a matter of fairness, ”says Ruthe Farmer, chief evangelist at CS for all.

Girls Who Code is part of a massive campaign to get young girls interested in STEM, and it says it’s already having an impact. Its alumni are majoring in computer science or related fields at a pace 15 times the national average, and some girls have returned to their host companies as interns or full-time employees. The organization #Hire me The platform lists the internship and employment opportunities of the company’s partners. In 2017, these companies received more than 500 applications for posted positions.

At EA’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., About 20 summer immersion program participants start each morning with a journal entry reflecting the day before. (Cooper’s commitment to computing was recorded in his Girls Who Code journal.) This is followed by a lecture and a hands-on project.

EA has approximately 20 participants in this year's summer immersion program.

EA has approximately 20 participants in this year’s summer immersion program.

James Martin / CNET

During the last two weeks of the program, the girls work on a final project that ties together what they have learned. It might involve creating something like a mobile app or a website. Over the past two years, Cooper returned to EA as a teaching assistant.

Cooper says her experiences at EA through Girls Who Code made her want to come back to the company when she graduates, hopefully as a full-time game developer.

“This company creates the games that made my childhood,” she said. “I would love to come back and be a part of this.”

First published Aug. 3 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:04 am: Adds information on other coding camps for girls.

Solve for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about “women in tech”.

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