Transforming The Conversation On Women In Computer Science

Editor’s note: Alison Derbenwick Miller is the vice president of Oracle Academy where she and her team work to advance computer science education by driving student interest and skill development – regardless of gender or socioeconomic background – to help cultivate the next generation of technology innovators and business leaders.

Barbie and Mattel made news recently in the world of computer science. While initial reaction to Mattel’sBarbie “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” book focused on all-too-common and inaccurate stereotypes, conversation that has developed around the book is actually helping to shine the spotlight on two very important issues.

Why are women misrepresented and underrepresented in computer science, and how can we change perceptions and increase the number of women pursuing careers in this important and vibrant industry?

While the book admirably focuses on the fact that women “can be” computer engineers, the reality is that women are computer engineers and women do code. That said, while women are present in computer science, there is no denying that they are underrepresented, and the gap is widening – with women making up only 25 percent of the computer science workforce.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always this way. Looking back to the 1970s and early 1980s, the number of women studying computer science was outpacing that of men. Around 1984, however, the number of women earning computer science degrees leveled and then plunged. While there is no single reason for this drop, many researchers and academics propose that it is linked at least in part to the rapid entrenchment of gender stereotypes as home computers began to emerge.

Computer programs, ads and promotions were increasingly focused on and directed at males. For example, as mentioned in NPR’s segment “When Women Stopped Coding,” a popular commercial from the 80s almost entirely focuses on marketing color computers to boys, barely showing a female character throughout the clip.

We can and must turn the tide on these stereotypes and boost the number of women entering this growing industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer science employment is projected to grow 15 percent by 2022. Transformation of perceptions of women in computer science must happen at the individual and community level.

At the individual level, Casey Fielser, a Ph.D. in computer science at Georgia Tech, inspires us by taking it upon herself to rewrite the Barbie story.

At the community level, organizations focused on encouraging girls to code are popping up around the nation. For example, Black Girls Code (BGC), a TechCrunch Include Grant recipient and Oracle Giving grantee, provides computer science training for African-American girls. BGC reaches out to surrounding communities to inspire girls to code through workshops and after school programs.

Girls Who Code, also an Oracle Giving grantee, is dedicated to ending gender inequality in computer science by providing girls with skills to pursue computer science and engineering jobs. Similarly, CinnamonGirl, a mentoring organization that focuses on leadership, development, and STEM education among others, empowers girls to develop their strengths and talents. These programs are important foundations for inspiring and empowering girls and young women.

In addition to supporting programs like these, there are a number of things that we can do to help increase interest in computer science among girls.

Make computer science a core K-12 curriculum element

It can take 25 years or more to create a computer scientist — male or female — from developing core analysis and problem-solving skills to achieving fluency in programming languages. As such, it is essential that computer science education become integrated in the K-12 curriculum so that females, along with their male counterparts, are exposed early and often to this discipline.

Make computer science more relatable

Teachers, parents and administrators can help expand interest in computer science by making the subject more appealing to a wide range of students, including females. Help students understand the connection between computer science and their lives – how it helps them to register for classes at school, enables cell phones to function, fosters improved health and fitness, and determines the ads they see online.

Show success outside the classroom

It is important to show the diversity – in both people and career paths – that exists in the computer science careers to help drive student interest. This is particularly true for supporting female students. Both industry and academia must highlight existing female role models and actively encourage mentorships at the community level. Schools can bring in female professionals from the community who leverage computer science in their jobs to share with students how the skill can translate to a career.

Never stop exposing students to hands-on opportunities

Research and extracurricular programs help students understand the importance of their computer science skill set and how it can be applied beyond the classroom.

Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., used this important concept to quadruple its female computer science majors in four years. It rethought its approach to introductory courses and offered female students a summer research opportunity between their freshman and sophomore years to demonstrate how to apply their computer science skills and encourage them to take additional courses.

We applaud Mattel and Barbie for shining the spotlight on women in computer science. It brings to the forefront the importance of changing the narrative of women in computer science. We must rewrite the story to accurately reflect the role of women in the industry historically and today, and more importantly, encourage a new generation of females to pursue careers in this critical, diverse and burgeoning economic sector.