Women are underrepresented in tech jobs across the nation. In Massachusetts, about 27 percent of tech jobs were held by women in 2014. Apple, while actively engaged in efforts to recruit women, had 22 percent of its tech positions filled by women in 2015. The situation at Facebook and Microsoft is even worse, with less than 20 percent of technical positions held by women. Every year, companies broadcast a desire to fix this problem.
I see this same number, around 25 percent, in another context. It’s about the number of women in my high school computer science classes. I teach at one high school in suburban Boston, but from talking with other area teachers I believe my experience is typical. In 2015 only 22 percent of AP Computer Science exam takers nationwide were women.
While correlation is not causality, the similarity between these numbers is striking.
Why does this happen?
I’ve spent the better part of a career trying to change this in one school, with modest success. I’ve encouraged girls individually and collectively to pursue computer science, or at least to give it a try. I’ve run a Technovations club, where girls compete to create apps to solve problems in their communities, and a Girls who Code club, to give young women a chance to talk about and work on coding apart from their male classmates. In the past eight years at the high school where I teach, our programming classes have gone from 17 percent girls to 27 percent girls, while our total enrollments have also gone up substantially.
Students at our high school choose their courses based on a hierarchy of concerns. At the top level of this hierarchy are graduation requirements. For instance, students must take four years of English, two years of Science, etc. They are required to take half a year of a computer related course. This course might be a programming course, but art focused courses such as Digital Imaging also meet the requirement.
Next in the hierarchy are concerns around college admissions. Students choose to challenge themselves and choose courses like AP Physics over regular Physics mainly because they think it will help them get into college. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of college admissions concerns to kids choosing their next year’s classes.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the students’ interests. Students at our high school have a space in their schedule to take an elective course such as chorus, pottery, robotics, or computer programming. Even here, some students forego an elective course to take a second math or science course. Perhaps this is where their interests lie, though I suspect it often has more to do with the college admissions process.
Efforts to get more girls involved in Computer Science have mainly focused on stimulating their interest. This is by no means a bad thing! Programs like Girls who Code and Technovation get girls involved early, and can definitely move the needle. The very nature of these programs tilts them toward girls who are already interested in technology or whose parents understand that technology education is important.
All of the Above
A generation of girls, right now, is missing out on Computer Science. Voluntary extracurricular programs reach some of these young women, but far too few. We need an all of the above approach to getting girls involved in technology. By all means, we should continue to try and increase the interest of young women in computer science and technology. But that has not proved sufficient. We need graduation requirements that reflect modern needs. I think this means a full year course in computer science for all high school students. This doesn’t mean a full year course in programming, though that aspect should not be neglected. I recognize that the teaching resources to make this happen are not yet present. But we’re stuck in neutral right now, and we need to find a way to start.
Perhaps most importantly, colleges need to step up and send a clear message that Computer Science at the secondary level is important. Virtually every student at my high school takes a full year Chemistry course. It’s not required. Few of these students think they might want to be chemists, or even scientists. But they believe that the college of their choice expects them to take Chemistry. If university admissions departments stated publicly that students should take Computer Science, I believe it would have a big, long term effect on how many girls are exposed to CS.