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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

The gender imbalance persisted during her studies at Iowa State University, where Williams will receive a bachelor’s degree this spring. Her graduating class of 60 computer scientists includes only four women. There are reasons why this happens, said Farmer.

From an early age, girls receive subtle messages about what they are supposed to like and who they should be, as anyone who has walked through the aisles of a toy store knows. Disney princesses and Barbie dolls dominate aisles meant for girls. Toys that build scientific skills — like robots, building sets and automated vehicles — are made in masculine colors, mostly, and are usually found in aisles obviously meant for boys.

As children get older, boys get more encouragement in junior and high school to join computer science classes and clubs, Farmer said.

“Because there are not many girls in computer science classes, you feel like you don’t belong if you don’t do as well as male peers,” Williams said. Her recent college experiences taught her that girls are too quickly discouraged by getting lower grades than male peers with earlier background in computing. It’s not necessary to get perfect grades, she counsels young women starting a major in computer science. If you just get the degree, you will get a job, she tells them. It worked for her.

Williams speaks with a natural air of self-assurance. Perhaps it is her confidence, plus hard-earned skills and persistence, that helped her to persevere. The rewards begin soon. Williams has already accepted one of several job offers. All came in at six-figure salaries.

The money will be nice, but Williams is even more pleased about what she will be doing for Venmo, a New York-based technology firm. Part of her job will involve creative code-writing to make Venmo’s iPhone-based payment apps more appealing and user-friendly. The rest of the time she’ll work under an increasingly common job title. As a “developer evangelist,” Williams will attend and speak at conferences, hack-a-thons and programming competitions to get the word out about her company’s products. Her new job isn't boring, bucking a common stereotype about a computer-related careers.

A woman’s viewpoint

Though women prefer jobs that employ creativity in ways that improve lives, they tend to overlook technology careers, said Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Girls Who Code.

“It’s a very fulfilling career,” Saujani said. “Think about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These tools have changed the world.”

The computer-based tools so prevalent in modern life might be even more useful if more women took part in developing them, said Utah Valley University computer science professor Kirk Love, who studies gender issues in his field. Because men dominate computer fields, the games, apps and other products they develop often have greater appeal for men than women.

However, in recent years women have begun to dominate social media applications. A report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project from September found that from 2008 to 2013, the percentage of women using social media outranked the percentage of men doing so by 8 percent.

“We’ve got half the population out there that has a whole different world view,” Love said. “Why not get them involved in creating products?”

Texan Roya Edalatpour, 19, wants to be on the vanguard in making the digital universe more welcoming to women. Programming computers is a key part of her electrical engineering major at the University of Texas/El Paso, where she is a sophomore.

“Women bring a totally new perspective to the computing field, and diversify the technology we put out there,” Edalatpour said.

Coding is creative

National test results show that elementary and secondary school girls outperform boys in writing and verbal tasks. Love said females might have natural advantages over their male peers when it comes to computer coding, a process he compares to writing a book.

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