“That’s just for boys!” is a common remark heard among young girls. In fact, my younger sister recently made that comment to me when I asked her if she played a certain videogame. While the context might be innocent or inane, it’s alarming how many things are deemed to be “for boys” when, in reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Science- and technology-related fields of study and employment are often treated this way, even though women have historically been at the forefront of groundbreaking scientific and technological advancements. From Ada Lovelace to Katherine Johnson, knowledge of prominent female figures in STEM careers are difficult to come by, although recently, more and more stories about these women have surfaced in mainstream media. It is easy to see how young girls internalize the “boys only” misconception when so many facts circulated in science and technology appear to be dominated by men.
Women code too
Ada Lovelace was a talented mathematician born in 1815. Ada took to mathematics at an early age and was able to study math at the collegiate level. While translating an article about an invention created by her mentor, Ada shared some of her ideas about the machine, along with notes on how computer code could be written to give the device repeatable instructions. Because of this, she is considered by many to be the world’s first computer programmer.
The story of Katherine Johnson was recently featured in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. Katherine was an incredibly gifted woman. At the age of 10, she was a freshman in high school. She started working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later known as NASA, in 1952. Her job title? Computer. Young women were hired to perform calculations, even when NASA began to use actual computers for these tasks. Katherine’s mathematical skills were so virtuosic that her job was to double-check the work of the machines! In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Female influences in computer science are not relegated only to historical contributions. Over the past few years Samaira Mehta has been featured in the news and invited to speak at conferences for her work as a programmer — a title she earned at six years old! Her work has helped children all across the country learn to code.
Getting girls into computer science
While there is still considerable progress to be made, there are signs that more girls are getting exposed to computer science earlier on in their K-12 education. In 2018, there was a 39% increase in female students who took the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exam. High school students, passing scores on AP exams can translate to credit at many American colleges.
Still, in 2015, only 18% of graduates with a computer science degree were female. Why is this?
- Lack of female role models. As we mentioned earlier, the computer scientists and other workers in STEM fields we see at tech companies in Silicon Valley in the news and on TV are usually men. We don’t see as many women in technology, and thus software engineering doesn’t doesn’t get added as often to girls’ lists of career aspirations.
- Lack of early exposure. Studies show that students are ten times more likely to major in computer science if they are introduced to it early on to build their programming experience, like in an AP Computer Science class.
- Misconceptions about programming as a career.The media also portrays programming as an independent and “nerdy” discipline, whereas building software is actually a very collaborative process.
- Afraid to make mistakes. Code rarely runs perfectly the first time you run it, and learning how to debug code is a key programming skill.