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Why Are There So Few Girls in Tech? Blame the Narrative

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A senior in CS at Stanford looks into why relatively few girls get interested in her field and finds that the stories we tell about tech are a big part of the problem. So how do we change the narrative? She has a few ideas.

By Sarah Sterman (Senior in CS, Stanford)

Over the last five months, I’ve been investigating girls’ perceptions of CS, and why it is that so few women end up in computer science.  I’m a senior at Stanford studying product design and computer science, and decided my capstone project would address this issue. I talked and coded with middle-school girls, college students, and programmers in industry, trying to find where the blocks were for girls.

I showed middle-schoolers App Inventor and XCode, wondering if perhaps coding was intimidating. But kids don’t seem to be scared by anything.  When they see just what they can do with code, their excitement is infectious. So the problem wasn’t with programming itself — the girls loved that part!

It turns out that the big stumbling block is the narrative surrounding the jobs and the people in tech. News and media play up certain stories about computer science — the guy coding alone in a college dorm room, all-nighters fueled by pizza and caffeine.  But a lot of girls don’t see themselves in that picture, especially when the programmers in question always seem to be young white males. The missing link is for girls to see themselves as part of the story, to see computer science as an option for people like them.

Real Life Issue, Fictional Solution

A lot of great work is being done to give girls real life role models, and highlight the accomplishments of women in CS.  However, there’s still a space that hasn’t been touched much by these efforts: the fictional media that kids consume. The books kids read and the movies they watch paint a picture not just of the world as it is, but of how it could be. Fictional characters let you imagine yourself in their place, and give you a role model you can relate to, as well as look up to. However, I’ve found very few books that portrayed girls coding. The very absence sends a message — not even in imaginary worlds do girls code. But this message is untrue!

That’s why I decided to write a kid’s novel, The Code Witch. The protagonist is a middle-school girl who loves to code, and gets thrown into magical adventures to save a dragon with logic, bravery and programming. The goal is to write a good story, and through that story give girls a fictional role model in computer science, spark their imaginations, and build a foundation for girls to imagine a place for themselves in CS.

We need to address the gender imbalance in computer science from all angles; no one approach is going to fix the problem. I hope that stories like The Code Witch will be one more of the building blocks in the solution.

More information is at The Code Witch Kickstarter – already fully funded!

Women 2.0 readers: What else could we do — as workers, mothers and makers — to change the narrative around CS for girls?

About the guest blogger: Sarah Sterman is a senior at Stanford University studying computer science and product design. When not coding, she writes fiction, builds things, bakes bread, and does karate. Dreams for the future include hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and reading all the books in the world.

Photo credit: GlobalPartnerhip for Education via Flickr