In the 1980s, even when companies primarily marketed personal computers to boys, there was more gender parity in the professional field. About 37% of computer science undergraduate degrees were awarded to women in 1984; that number decreased to 18% in 2014. It’s estimated only one in every four schools in the U.S. teaches coding, even though 56% of teachers think it should be mandatory.
But all these statistics and percentages, and even the general knowledge that there’s an issue, can be overwhelming. You want to help, but you have no idea where to start.
Here are some initial steps you can take to meaningfully advocate for getting girls into computer science in your own community.
1. Know the specific barriers we need to overcome.
Before anything, you need to understand the systemic obstacles preventing girls from getting into coding. Both a culture that persistently ignores and discourages girls’ abilities in computer science, and the lack of access to tools and education, play influential roles.
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, says it’s deeply ingrained in our culture to let it be OK for girls to say they don’t like math and science.
“We almost sensationalize it in culture for girls to promote that,” she tells Mashable. “You can walk into a Forever 21 and buy a T-shirt that says ‘I’m allergic to algebra’ … You’re always showcasing these really smart girls hiding their intelligence when it comes to math and science.”
If girls can’t see themselves in these professions, Saujani adds, they’re not going to choose to pursue them. And that also extends to inside classrooms, where coding is rarely offered to students in general, much less focusing on girls — an obstacle Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi says is equally as significant as culture.
“If you enter a classroom and you see 18 boys and two girls, you automatically think, ‘I’m in the wrong place and I’m not welcome,'” Partovi says. “And that makes it harder.”
2. Start with concrete first steps in your own life.
What I wish I Knew When I Was a Teenager ft. @reshmasaujani:https://t.co/SaClCH0l32 via @bopandtigerbeat pic.twitter.com/V1xt463XPO
— Girls Who Code (@GirlsWhoCode) November 5, 2015
Addressing the issue of girls and coding in your community doesn’t require you to start your own nonprofit or advocacy organization. In fact, you can start very small, like choosing to empower a girl you know.
Saujani recommends tackling everyday stereotypes — for example, if an appliance or gadget breaks in your house, bring it to your daughter to help fix, instead of your son.
“I really feel like everybody should think about a young girl in their lives and inspire her to learn how to code,” she says. “Talk to her about it. Coding to me is the ultimate 21st-century skill set that every young girl has to learn.”
“We really need to watch … our own unconscious bias on how we treat boys and girls in terms of their abilities to build and create. And we should change that,” she says.
3. Find organizations putting in the work already.
Show me your plans! There are multiple ways to answer that! #bgcrobotexpo#changeherpath #CSEdWeek @LEGO_Group pic.twitter.com/bn0oVfIzmT
— BlackGirlsCode.Com (@BlackGirlsCode) December 13, 2015
You don’t need to start from scratch. There are a number of excellent organizations getting girls to code through innovative and successful programs, and just as many ways to support them.
Kimberly Bryant, founder and executive director of Black Girls Code, suggests finding ways to tap into these organizations, either as a parent or someone with a technical or science background who can assume the role of mentor. And even if those roles don’t fit who you are, you can support programs through contributions and donations to help them grow and thrive.
“We really see … that there’s a tremendous demand from girls for these types of programs, because so few of them exist,” Bryant tells Mashable. “Looking for ways to support the programs doing this work now will be a great help in terms of helping them reach more girls and more students.”
In addition to Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and Code.org, there’s Girls Learning Code,Iridescent (which runs the Technovation Challenge), and the 1,000 Girls 1,000 Futures initiative as part of the Global STEM Alliance, just to name a few.
You can find more U.S.-based programs here, as well as a wide range of international programs and initiatives here.
4. Be a role model.
UT SWE’s booth @ISTscience STEM Career Day for Girls- popsicle stick catapults + other fun experiments! @SWEtalk pic.twitter.com/tRauHCJ2LM
— UToledo Engineering (@UToledoCoE) May 19, 2015
Take time to figure out where your skills and experience could help the most. For example, if you’re a woman working in a STEM field, think of ways you might be able to inspire girls with your own story, showing firsthand that it can be done.
“It’s critical for girls to see role models like myself that are in technical fields,” Bryant says. “Looking for ways to come in as speakers or do a career day, or just find a way to connect with students or invite students to their workplaces to shadow them for the day … is critically important.”
The students Black Girls Code and other organizations work with today are digital natives — they’re growing up with computers and smartphones on a constant basis, Bryant explains.
But there’s still a lack of women in technology being elevated in the public sphere.
“Reaching out and making an effort to go back into community organizations and schools … and talking about what you do, so [girls can] see a pathway to a career for themselves from someone who looks like them, who has done it already, is extremely important. I can’t say enough about the importance of mentorship and encouraging girls that this career field is possible for them,” she says.
If you’re not in a position to become a mentor yourself, ask friends and family in technical fields if they’d be willing to volunteer their time. You can also see how your own workplace or community organizers might be able to help.
5. Encourage your local school to teach girls how to code.
In Finland #coding will be part of school curriculum in 2016 http://t.co/tCEflxqzbe#education #codeweek2015 pic.twitter.com/KGY7B4gOi5
— GoodNewsfromFinland (@goodnewsfinland) October 13, 2015
One of the most important ways to advocate for girls is to get schools to actually offer courses on the subject. On the public advocacy side, you can contact your local politicians and legislators to lobby on behalf of making coding a priority in public school education. As a parent or guardian, you can put pressure on school administrations to include more computer science courses in curricula for various age levels.
And if you’re a teacher, you can effect change within the school system itself.
“The elementary school level is the easiest place to have an impact, [because] you don’t need the school district to do something — you don’t need to change school course codes or schedules,” Partovi says.
In fact, Code.org has one-day trainings for any elementary school teacher to bring computer science to their classrooms — something 20,000 teachers have done with Code.org workshops. If a teacher isn’t available to teach coding, many organizations, like Girls Who Code, can provide a volunteer.
For high schools, it will take more advocacy at the school district level — and for that, Partovi recommends talking to the principal or the administration.
Bryant also advises teachers to integrate computer science into existing subjects, and not to think it necessarily has to be a standalone course or curriculum. They can create an interdisciplinary path to welcome coding into schools.
“When my daughter first got into coding, she was using Scratch in her math and science classes,” she says. “Looking for ways to use technology as a tool in other classes … and using it to elevate that particular subject are ways in which it can become second-nature.”
It’s important to note that widespread policy changes in education won’t take place overnight.
“I think we need to make a lot of policy changes in [the U.S.] … but it’s going to take a long time to really, truly implement them,” says Saujani, who previously served as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City. “And I think in the interim, we need our after-school programs to make sure we don’t lose any time. Every day that goes by that we’re not educating our children, it feels like we’re losing out.”