News Column

Girls: Computer Programming Isn't Just for Guys

April 4, 2013

Megha Satyanarayana

girls and technology

Computer science? #notjustforguys.

That's the message from Girls Who Code, a New York nonprofit that teaches high school girls computer programming. In July, the organization will host its first boot camp in metro Detroit for high school girls with little-to-no programming experience.

By the end of the roughly six-week program, 20 girls will have created mobile apps, websites and programmed robots, all while learning about computing as a career.

"We want girls who are just passionate about technology," said Reshma Saujani, the group's founder. "We want leaders. And we want you to get a skill set."

Girls Who Code began last summer in New York with a program attended by 20 girls, some of whom have switched their career focus to computer science, program staffers said. This year, with the help of the Knight Foundation, the program is expanding to Detroit and Silicon Valley. Saujani said choosing metro Detroit was a no-brainer.

"Detroit was at the top of the list," she said. "There are so many tech start-ups and nonprofits."

Yet, getting women into computing continues to be a challenge, Saujani said.

While the overall numbers of men and women in the sciences are evening out, national labor statistics show, computer science is still a male-dominated profession. In 2012, women made up about 50% of all doctors and biomedical researchers; 44% of all chemists and material scientists were women. But in computer science as a whole, women made up 25% of the work force; specifically, 23% of programmers, 20% of software developers and 34% of web developers.

The issue, Saujani said, is women's perception that the field is made up of white males often working alone. She said when teen girls are surveyed about careers, they talk about having jobs that change lives. Saujani and others believe computer science and social change go hand in hand.

Cinda Davis, director of the Women in Science and Engineering program at the University of Michigan, pointed to a recent science fair as evidence: One of the winning projects was a computer program to help people with disabilities navigate their wheelchairs -- and the developer was a teenage girl.

"Girls want to help people," Davis said. Computer science "saves a lot of lives, but we don't do a great job of marketing that."

Arianna Alleyne, was part of the Girls Who Code boot camp in New York last summer. The 15-year-old Bronx junior had dreams of becoming a lawyer when her mother suggested that she apply. She said she bonded with the other girls in the group, and they keep in touch. And while not swaying her from a future law degree, the experience changed her perspective.

"You use these apps and you never know how it's made until you do it yourself," she said. "I'd never done anything like that before. I didn't know what to expect."

Davis said getting girls interested in computer science in high school might be key to boosting career numbers -- at U-M, in fall 2012, about 13% of computer engineering students were women. And like many science and technology fields, another hurdle that Davis recognizes in keeping women out of computer science is sexism -- intentional or otherwise.

Recently, a Twitter post from a software developers conference in California led to two people being fired from their jobs -- a woman who made the Twitter complaint about perceived sexism at the conference and one of the two men she said made the comment. The backlash against her, captured on social media, was severe and often threatened violence.

The Twitter blowup is an extreme example, but sexism is an issue, said Erika Carlson, leader of the Detroit chapter of Girl Develop It, a networking and teaching organization for women interested in programming. She said her experience has been the opposite and that she can't wait to see the impact of Girls Who Code. She said she gets requests from parents all the time to start programs for children.

"I look forward to the day when being a female developer is not a novelty," said Carlson, 27. "I have very high hopes for the program here in Detroit."

Source: (c)2013 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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