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Code secrets: The real reasons why girls need to become computer geeks

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26 2013 8:40 a.m. MST

Pennsylvania junior-high girls learn computer coding skills through AspireIT, a program sponsored by the National Council for Women and Information Technology.

Used by permission of NCWIT

Nobody told eighth-grader Cassidy Williams that computer programming isn’t for girls. Williams overheard a schoolmate talking about the website he was making, and decided she wanted one, too. So she built one.

That was seven years ago. Chicago native Williams still remembers combing the Internet for free help in using computer programming languages — a skill called coding. With persistence, she picked up a bit of HTML, a smattering of CSS and a smidge of Javascript. She was on her way.

Like a tourist who arrives in Paris barely able to say “Bonjour,” Williams expanded her coding vocabulary by surmounting new challenges. Before long, she could flow graphic elements and text on the colorful, “silly” Web pages she cobbled together. A photo gallery came next, and a chat room followed. When Williams invited her schoolgirl chums to the site, a lively social community blossomed within her creation.

“This was before Facebook, and they were all embracing it just as much as I was,” Williams recalls. At the time, no one mentioned the words “geek” or “nerd.” No one told her that girls don’t code. That would come later.

Few girls and women learn computer programming skills in the United States, and the number who do is falling. In 1990-91, 29 percent of all undergraduate computer and information science bachelor’s degrees went to women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Now, only 18 percent do. A growing band of experts say those numbers must change — not only to give women better opportunities, but to strengthen the U.S. economy. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million open jobs in fields related to computing, and at current U.S. graduation rates for computer science degrees, two-thirds will go unfilled by Americans.

“There are a lot of unfilled technology jobs that have to be outsourced because we don’t have people with the right skills,” said Ruthe Farmer, the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s director of strategic initiatives. “There is a talent shortage.”

Computer-related careers are a great option for women who need to balance work and family, experts say. Jobs are plentiful, and entry-level salaries range around $80,000-$100,000. Some technology jobs have flexible schedules. And many computer programmers work online from their homes.

Where are the girls?

Researchers who look at causes for the declining percentage of women in technology fields cite difficulties of breaking into an increasingly male-dominated world, lack of positive role models in media, and societal messages that cast computer programming as a masculine pursuit.

“Girls aren’t getting the same kind of encouragement as boys are getting,” Farmer said. “We think it’s the same, but it really isn’t.”

Girls receive too little exposure to what computer scientists really do, and they lack positive female role models in computing fields, she added. Stereotypes about nerdy women in technology fields abound. Social isolation in male-dominated classes and careers is a problem, too. To many girls, breaking into computer-related careers seems almost like storming a clubhouse with “Girls Keep Out” scrawled on the door.

Cassidy Williams confronted that reality when she showed up for the first day of Advanced Placement Computer Science as a high school junior and found herself surrounded by boys. And, outside class, a chorus of discouraging comments arose.

“People would say things like ‘girls don’t go into that,’ or ‘that doesn’t sound very fun,’ ” Williams remembers. “But it is fun,” she would reply. “Have you seen the websites I’ve made?”

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