It’s Computer Science Education Week: Do You Know Where the Girls Are?

Joana Rubio was a junior in high school when she took her first computer science class. It had not occurred to her to study computer science before, but during a presentation to her class by staff members from a local community-based organization, the Digital NEST, she realized that it might be a good fit for her.

At the Digital NEST, Rubio learned that there are women in computing, and that computer science involves more than just coding. “I’ve always liked complexity,” she said. “It’s just the fact that I mostly saw guys into it that disturbed me.” Now, the high school senior wants to be a civil engineer.

The Digital NEST is one of several organizations that is working to give girls like Rubio the opportunity to build the skills that will help them shape new technologies. Located just 50 miles from Silicon Valley, the Digital NEST serves a population that has little representation in the tech industry—just 12 percent of all women employed in computing and information sciences careers are Black or Latinx. While they offer programming workshops, they often hook their students through web design or web development.

Monica Gutierrez, the Web & IT Manager, designs class content and makes sure it is up to current IT standards. The classes cover a range of the skills that are needed in the tech industry, which include “meeting the client, thinking about ideas, designing and developing the website, and doing quality insurance.” By showing them that computer science involves more than coding, they get a more diverse group of students involved long-term—“they get to see the entire process and see what flavor they like the most.” 

The United States is at a watershed moment in the history of computing education. Thanks to federal funding from the National Science Foundation and others, a “computer science for all” movement has led to programs and classes popping up in schools and community-based organizations. If your school doesn’t yet have a class or program in something like coding, robotics or game design, they will soon. These efforts have been mostly unregulated, but 22 states in 2018 alone adopted standards for computer science education in K-12, up from six states in 2017.

In the U.S., girls make up 37.5 percent of students in computer science classes in K-12; that number drops to 15.5 percent for girls from historically underrepresented groups. But having standards, federal and state funding, and policies in place that require high schools to offer CS does not necessarily lead to more participation by girls. In fact, programs and classes that reinforce stereotypes about who can do computer science can do more harm than having no class at all.

Girls are less likely to be encouraged by parents and teachers to pursue computing, and less likely to enroll in extracurricular activities than their male counterparts. However, girls are both interested in computing and they are good at it. A recent national test shows that girls are outperforming boys on questions about technology and engineering, even though they are less likely to have taken those classes. And they do just as well as boys in the Computer Science AP test, even though they are much less likely to take it.

So what is the problem?

Research suggests that stereotypes and expectations play a critical role in girls’ self-perception and in their interest in pursuing computing courses. “At first I wasn’t into the coding part,” Rubino explained, “because I only saw guys doing it and never thought girls would be involved in it.”

To counter these beliefs, some programs use girl-specific approaches—such as emphasizing creativity and social relevance by connecting computer science to the arts, using narrative and showing how computer science can help them have an influence on their communities. But assuming that all girls are the same is a common mistake in efforts to engage girls in computer science.

Allison Scott, the Chief Research Officer at the Kapor Center—which “aims to make the technology ecosystem and entrepreneurship more diverse and inclusive”—argued that it is important to understandindividual preferences and experiences,” because “not every girl is going to be the same.” It is a mistake, she warned, to assume “that we can have girls create a website to purchase clothes [because it] is assuming that all girls like to shop and that is the way to get them interested in computer science. But there might be some girls that are interested in just figuring out lines of code.”

In addition to the Digital NEST, there are programs that provide a range of entry-points for students to engage with computer science. Joanna Goode, Jane Margolis and Gail Chapman, Professors in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, created a Exploring Computer Science year-long course for high school students that uses a hands-on inquiry-based approach that has equity at its core. Goode agreed that approaches must be adapted to different types of students and must also be responsive to students’ cultures and contexts: “We’re teaching students in our communities about CS; we’re not just teaching CS.”

A key strategy used by both the Digital NEST and the Kapor Center is to connect girls to role models that have a similar background. “It’s incredibly important to have folks that represent the community in the classes,” Scott explained. “That is an incredibly powerful component that many folks often overlook.”Having a shared background can often lead to the strong connections that are so important when challenging girls to do something new.

These relationships are key. “What Monica is doing,” Cecilia Vásquez, a high school senior that attends the Digital NEST, said, helps her the most. “She’s there even if miss a class, she helps us understand the concepts they went over, and she’s always there to talk to. Having someone to talk you and help you problem solve things because computer science is not easy.”

Gutierrez’s strategy is to have those exact conversations—“being honest and real with them about the number of women and girls in CS jobs,” and “showing them that these are just stereotypes and this doesn’t have to be it.” Some young women are motivated by the lack of girls. “When you talk about these issues, they want to solve it,: Gutierrez recalled, “and they want to be those people that are change makers, want to be that first girl in the room talking about developing the next biggest software or the next programming language.”

Rubio echoed the sentiment. “The fact that I saw mostly guys into it disturbed me,” she asserted. “Why aren’t there girls out there? If I want more girls to go out there I need to do it first.”

The problem is not with the girls—it is with the adults and the institutional practices that perpetuate gender stereotypes about what CS is and who should do it. “We often think of CS as something that is only good for a small slice of students and we ask counselors to funnel certain students to the course rather than assuming it is foundational knowledge,” Goode said. “Amongst educators, we have misperceptions about who belongs and who doesn’t.”

Rubio agrees. “Nowadays, we categorize everything like this is for females and this is for males,” she noted. “They tend to reach out only to men, and that makes girls feel excluded.” Girls are not encouraged, she says, “to do coding; if they have a coding workshop they focus on the guys.”

There are several efforts that are underway that can impact adults’ beliefs. The Exploring Computer Science program has an extensive teacher professional development that has equity at its center. They have trained over 3,000 teachers across the U.S. through an intensive two-year professional development program that helps attendees bring the content alive for students and includes explicit conversations about race and gender and what the teachers’ roles are in presenting a CS that resonates with different students.

The Kapor Center is also working with educators. “One thing we do in the SMASH program,” Scott explained, “is we do a whole series on working with teachers about understanding bias and teaching for equity… it is incredibly important they understand some of the barriers that affect girls and also thinking about their teaching practice in a way that reduces those barriers.”

Another important strategy used by all of the organizations in this article is long-term engagement. It is a mistake, Scott said, to think “that a one-time a person parachuting in and doing a coding lesson will counteract long-term effects of bias and stereotypes around who does CS, who is often male and not a person of color.”

Do you want to contribute to efforts to give more girls equitable access to computer science? Check with your local schools or after school clubs to see what they are doing during CS Ed Week and find ways to support longer-term activities.

“CS Education week is a wonderful opportunity to shine the light and raise up the importance of CS education, and the opportunity to bring more girls into CS,” Goode added, “but we need to follow-up with learning opportunities where people can go to increase their knowledge.” She urged all of us to “think beyond CS Ed week as time to launch, not just celebrate.”

We can also think of CS Ed week as a time to make sure our activities are inclusive of girls—and other students who don’t immediately see themselves as welcome in computer science.

Click to the next page for resources on how to get involved!


Jill Denner is the Senior Research Scientist at ETR.