Get Deseret News National Email Updates Every Day.
Education

Code secrets: The real reasons why girls need to become computer geeks

Nobody told eighth-grader Cassidy Williams that computer programming isn’t for girls. Williams overheard a schoolmate talking about the website he was making, and decided she wanted one, too. So she built one.

That was seven years ago. Chicago native Williams still remembers combing the Internet for free help in using computer programming languages — a skill called coding. With persistence, she picked up a bit of HTML, a smattering of CSS and a smidge of Javascript. She was on her way.

Like a tourist who arrives in Paris barely able to say “Bonjour,” Williams expanded her coding vocabulary by surmounting new challenges. Before long, she could flow graphic elements and text on the colorful, “silly” Web pages she cobbled together. A photo gallery came next, and a chat room followed. When Williams invited her schoolgirl chums to the site, a lively social community blossomed within her creation.

“This was before Facebook, and they were all embracing it just as much as I was,” Williams recalls. At the time, no one mentioned the words “geek” or “nerd.” No one told her that girls don’t code. That would come later.

Few girls and women learn computer programming skills in the United States, and the number who do is falling. In 1990-91, 29 percent of all undergraduate computer and information science bachelor’s degrees went to women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Now, only 18 percent do. A growing band of experts say those numbers must change — not only to give women better opportunities, but to strengthen the U.S. economy. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million open jobs in fields related to computing, and at current U.S. graduation rates for computer science degrees, two-thirds will go unfilled by Americans.

“There are a lot of unfilled technology jobs that have to be outsourced because we don’t have people with the right skills,” said Ruthe Farmer, the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s director of strategic initiatives. “There is a talent shortage.”

Computer-related careers are a great option for women who need to balance work and family, experts say. Jobs are plentiful, and entry-level salaries range around $80,000-$100,000. Some technology jobs have flexible schedules. And many computer programmers work online from their homes.

Where are the girls?

Researchers who look at causes for the declining percentage of women in technology fields cite difficulties of breaking into an increasingly male-dominated world, lack of positive role models in media, and societal messages that cast computer programming as a masculine pursuit.

“Girls aren’t getting the same kind of encouragement as boys are getting,” Farmer said. “We think it’s the same, but it really isn’t.”

Girls receive too little exposure to what computer scientists really do, and they lack positive female role models in computing fields, she added. Stereotypes about nerdy women in technology fields abound. Social isolation in male-dominated classes and careers is a problem, too. To many girls, breaking into computer-related careers seems almost like storming a clubhouse with “Girls Keep Out” scrawled on the door.

Cassidy Williams confronted that reality when she showed up for the first day of Advanced Placement Computer Science as a high school junior and found herself surrounded by boys. And, outside class, a chorus of discouraging comments arose.

“People would say things like ‘girls don’t go into that,’ or ‘that doesn’t sound very fun,’ ” Williams remembers. “But it is fun,” she would reply. “Have you seen the websites I’ve made?”

The gender imbalance persisted during her studies at Iowa State University, where Williams will receive a bachelor’s degree this spring. Her graduating class of 60 computer scientists includes only four women. There are reasons why this happens, said Farmer.

From an early age, girls receive subtle messages about what they are supposed to like and who they should be, as anyone who has walked through the aisles of a toy store knows. Disney princesses and Barbie dolls dominate aisles meant for girls. Toys that build scientific skills — like robots, building sets and automated vehicles — are made in masculine colors, mostly, and are usually found in aisles obviously meant for boys.

As children get older, boys get more encouragement in junior and high school to join computer science classes and clubs, Farmer said.

“Because there are not many girls in computer science classes, you feel like you don’t belong if you don’t do as well as male peers,” Williams said. Her recent college experiences taught her that girls are too quickly discouraged by getting lower grades than male peers with earlier background in computing. It’s not necessary to get perfect grades, she counsels young women starting a major in computer science. If you just get the degree, you will get a job, she tells them. It worked for her.

Williams speaks with a natural air of self-assurance. Perhaps it is her confidence, plus hard-earned skills and persistence, that helped her to persevere. The rewards begin soon. Williams has already accepted one of several job offers. All came in at six-figure salaries.

The money will be nice, but Williams is even more pleased about what she will be doing for Venmo, a New York-based technology firm. Part of her job will involve creative code-writing to make Venmo’s iPhone-based payment apps more appealing and user-friendly. The rest of the time she’ll work under an increasingly common job title. As a “developer evangelist,” Williams will attend and speak at conferences, hack-a-thons and programming competitions to get the word out about her company’s products. Her new job isn't boring, bucking a common stereotype about a computer-related careers.

A woman’s viewpoint

Though women prefer jobs that employ creativity in ways that improve lives, they tend to overlook technology careers, said Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Girls Who Code.

“It’s a very fulfilling career,” Saujani said. “Think about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These tools have changed the world.”

The computer-based tools so prevalent in modern life might be even more useful if more women took part in developing them, said Utah Valley University computer science professor Kirk Love, who studies gender issues in his field. Because men dominate computer fields, the games, apps and other products they develop often have greater appeal for men than women.

However, in recent years women have begun to dominate social media applications. A report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project from September found that from 2008 to 2013, the percentage of women using social media outranked the percentage of men doing so by 8 percent.

“We’ve got half the population out there that has a whole different world view,” Love said. “Why not get them involved in creating products?”

Texan Roya Edalatpour, 19, wants to be on the vanguard in making the digital universe more welcoming to women. Programming computers is a key part of her electrical engineering major at the University of Texas/El Paso, where she is a sophomore.

“Women bring a totally new perspective to the computing field, and diversify the technology we put out there,” Edalatpour said.

Coding is creative

National test results show that elementary and secondary school girls outperform boys in writing and verbal tasks. Love said females might have natural advantages over their male peers when it comes to computer coding, a process he compares to writing a book.

“You need grammar, an outline, organization and the ability to break things down into individual components,” he said. “You could argue that creating software is more female-oriented than male.”

However, the field has become so male-dominated that typical computing classes feature male instructors teaching male students, Love said. Women have a hard time relating. It’s a particular shame because many computing jobs have particular advantages for women, he added.

Love often speaks to groups of high school girls about computing careers and their rewards. Many of his listeners tell him they want careers that appeal to them, and don’t care about financial rewards.

“You should,” he tells them. “The biggest [demographic] group of people living in poverty is young mothers. It would be very nice to be working at home and making $50 or $100 per hour — and be there when the kids come home.”

Besides full-time job opportunities, computer coding skills lend themselves to home-based creation of new products, and creating an app, website or game can produce an ongoing flow of cash, he said.

“You create something once, and sell it over and over again,” Love said.

That creative aspect of computing is the first thing that captured Cassidy Williams’ interest.

“The thing I loved is that it combined logic and creativity,” she said. “I think girls can be better than guys when you talk about the creative side of things.”

Family friendly careers

Media portrayals that depict people in computing job as “geeks” — usually male — color young girls’ perceptions of such careers, said Catherine Ashcraft, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

On-screen men are much more likely than on-screen women to be depicted in computer science and engineering career fields, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media. Fewer than one in five screen characters depicted in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers is female, the study said.

The field of forensic science is one exception. Women in lab coats using chemistry and computing skills to solve crime on shows like "Bones" and "CSI" are credited for an upswing in the number of women majoring in forensic science — a phenomenon media outlets have dubbed the "CSI effect." Would it make a difference if television shows had more heroines who were computer hackers? Edalatpour thinks so.

“We need to change the stereotype that computing is for nerdy, white males,” said Edalatpour.

Doing so could give women good career options that dovetail with traditional values, said Love. A booming job market means it’s possible to drop into and out of the career, depending on family needs. And some technology jobs have flexible hours, or can be based in homes.

Several national groups are working to engage young girls in computing activities and change cultural perceptions. Girls Who Code, Saujani’s group, offers summer camps that teach high school girls to build websites and mobile apps using several coding languages. The group is only two years old, but so far, all seniors who attended the camps went on to major or minor in computing fields at college. Girls Who Code is launching clubs in schools, community centers and libraries across the nation.

The National Center for Women and Information Technology sponsors camps, clubs and after-school clubs designed to interest middle-school girls in robotics, computing and technology. Like Girls Who Code, the group offers scholarships and awards to increase female participation in technology careers. Williams and Edalatpour are both recipients.

Farmer, who directs these outreach programs, is clear about why they matter: “I want women and girls to have high-paying jobs that give them financial independence, and those jobs are in technology. There is no reason why girls should not be in technology jobs if they want to be there. We are working hard to create an environment that they want to be in and can thrive in.”

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker