“The problem isn’t that 13-year-old girls aren’t interested in computers. The problem is that 90% of our schools don’t even teach computer science”
By Hadi Partovi (Co-founder, Code.org)
The Twittersphere erupted last week over the question of whether the tech industry and its investors discriminate against female founders of startups. This issue comes regularly, and each time Silicon Valley leaders answer allegations of discrimination by pointing out the obvious: there aren’t enough women studying computer science.
Everyone can agree that the number of women in computer science today is disappointing. For the first time, Silicon Valley founders, tech companies, nonprofits, and even celebrities, athletes, politicians are also doing something meaningful at a national scale to address the problem.
Problem #1: Computer Science Is Not Taught in US Schools
The problem isn’t that 13-year-old girls aren’t interested in computers. The problem is that 90% of our schools don’t even teach computer science, and even when they do, it’s taught as an elective. Compare to calculus, biology, or chemistry: in the US public school system these fields have close to 50/50 participation by boys and girls. Why? Because every school teaches these topics. They’re part of the core curriculum.
Problem #2: It’s an Elective
In 33 states, computer science doesn’t even count towards high school graduation. When it’s only an elective or after-school activity, girls often don’t even try it, because they’re not seeing other young girls, or college students a few years above them, or women in careers, doing it either.
Problem #3: The Nerd Stereotype Drives Away Women
The problem isn’t nerds — I was a total nerd myself. But when boys dominate the few computer science courses or clubs that are offered in American schools, the odd girl who braves the stereotype sees instruction catering to male interests. Studies have shown that a male-dominated classroom, the nerd stereotype, or even simple appearances such as the decor of a room impact female enrollment in computer science. The stereotype, reinforced by mainstream media, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It Hasn’t Always Been This Way
It hasn’t always been this way, which is great encouragement that we can turn around the trend.
In 1985, young women earned 37% of computer science degrees compared with just 18% today. The world’s “first computer programmer” was a woman, and so was one of the earliest computer scientists, who coined the word “debugging.”
Even in high schools, computer science participation was on the rise in the ’80s. But after the 2001 dot-com bubble burst, many high schools closed their computer science programs. By 2009, 35% fewer high schools schools taught AP computer science, (and 17% fewer taught an intro class).
Tech Companies, Nonprofits, and 30,000 Schools Join Forces to Turn This Around
If we want to see more Ada Lovelaces and Grace Hoppers as role models today, we need to teach computer science in all schools to all students, not just as an elective or after school club.
Last month, thanks to the united effort of hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of teachers, over 20 million students tried computer science for the first time with the Hour of Code. Half of them were girls. Parents, teachers and students responded with excitement and surprise watching every single student stay glued to the activity after getting a taste of their first line of code. In just one week, more girls participated in computer science than all the boys who tried computer science in the history of the US school system.
And… Today’s Women are Breaking the Stereotype
The stereotype may suggest that coding is for boys, but participation by 10 million girls blows that up.
Did you know that these models, 8-year-olds, startup founders, and fashionistas are also computer programmers? There are now millions of others like them, ready to show the world that computer programming isn’t just for men.
Computer science is for every 21st century student. How do we start making that a reality? Simple. Teach it in our schools. Show girls that other girls are trying it too.
Happy New Year.
This post originally appeared on the Code.org blog.
About the blogger: Hadi is an entrepreneur and investor, and also co-founder of education non-profit Code.org. As an entrepreneur, he was on the founding teams of Tellme and iLike. As an angel investor and startup advisor, Hadi’s portfolio includes Facebook, Dropbox, airbnb, Zappos, OPOWER, Flixster, Bluekai, and many others.