Girls Who Code take on gender gap in computer science

Participation and interest in computer science drops off severely for young women between the ages of 13 and 17 and a local chapter of national organization Girls Who Code is hoping to catch the next generation of female tech leaders.

‘It’s important to look and see role models and see women doing amazing things in STEM’

OSWEGO — It’s no secret that computing is where the jobs of the future will be, and the technology born from that computing is pervasive in our pockets, work and homes now more than ever.

What’s not widely known, however, is the depth of the gender gap in the field — fewer than one in five college graduates in computer science are women — but a local chapter of a national non-profit organization is looking to turn the tide on that trend.

Girls Who Code was founded in 2012 to address the tech gender disparity by teaching girls the basics of coding and foster an interest in computer science before reaching college-age. According to stats from Girls Who Code’s national representatives, the biggest drop off for girls’ participation happens between the ages of 13 and 17.

Three years ago, the effort was brought to SUNY Oswego and members Ka Ying Chen, Rudi Ugino and Anisha KC told The Palladium-Times recently about the opportunities and challenges that come with being female computer science majors.

Chen said they generally work with girls from fourth to 10th grade on a semester schedule. The session begins with a project called “women in the spotlight,” where the students research a woman who has had success in a STEM field.

“They can learn something about women who have succeeded in the field so that they can have some role models to look up to,” Chen said. “And know that it’s possible for women to be successful in the field.”

From there,  students work on coding challenges in a guided setting, either independently or as part of a group. Chen said one way the club gets the students started is by asking them to think of an issue they care about, such as the gender wage gap, and having them come up with a way to tackle that issue through coding.

When a group of fourth graders wanted to tackle the lack of math skills among their fellow students, Chen said, they developed a simple game called “Math Racers” that was played on a computer and involved solving math problems to advance a car around a racetrack.

In 2016, U.S. News and World Report reported that 18 percent of computer science majors were female. That was down from 37 percent in 1984.

KC said in her personal experience, the disparity could be felt in the classrooms of SUNY Oswego.

“If you go to (introductory computer science) classes there will be a hundred kids and maybe 15 of them will be girls,” KC said. “That can be kind of intimidating, you might feel like you don’t belong there. It’s important to look and see role models and see women doing amazing things in STEM, you realize it is for you. Just because it’s dominated by males doesn’t mean you’re not good at it.”

Chen said it’s important to have diversity within computer science because of the intellectual diversity that comes with representation of both sexes. If an exclusively male team sets out to develop a phone application, she said, they would not necessarily be best equipped to see how the application could be best suited to female users.

When asked who their role models are, Chen said she believes every female programmer looks up to Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century English scientist hailed in some circles as the first computer programmer.

“It’s pretty funny to think that right now the field is male-dominated but actually the first person to start this was a female so this is a great inspiration,” Chen said.

Girls Who Code welcomes potential new members to come to their first meeting of the semester this upcoming Sunday, Feb. 9, at 2 p.m. in room 448 at the Richard S. Shineman Center at SUNY Oswego.

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