This is the fourth summer in a row that my youngest daughter, now 13, has done some sort of a programming camp. For three out of four summers, she has been the only girl in her group. While I commend these programs for a great curriculum and instructors, this has caused me to think about how, as parents and a community, we need to step up efforts on gender balance in computing much earlier than college or even high school. If girls are not participating in programs like this in their formative years, how are to expect them to be computer science majors or pursue technical careers?
As we walked to Harvard this summer for her first day of camp, my daughter was a bit anxious about yet another summer as the token girl. We had chosen a new program through Digital Media Academy (DMA) largely because they were one of the few to offer a Virtual Reality course where she could play with Oculus Rift and learn how to design virtual worlds. A second major factor was that much of the DMA website and materials are full of images of girls having fun with technology – suggesting they are very successful in recruiting girls to sign up for their courses.
In response to “Mom, if I am the only girl again this summer I am going to be so mad.” I tried to be encouraging and focus on the coolness of the course she was taking. I told her how leading edge she was to learn about an emerging technology before most people her age even knew what it was. I didn’t talk about the potential gender imbalance and instead focused on the fact that this was about pursuing her interests and passions. Inside though, I was hoping…no praying…she wasn’t the only one. Not just because I didn’t want her to be the one girl among the boys, but for the bigger picture. I was dying for a sign that the canaries were singing loudly in the coal mine. Hopeful that I would see a mixed group of boys and girls in the room eager to dig into technology.
The canaries weren’t singing…
When we arrived at the camp check-in area, we were relieved to see a few other girls signing in and heading off to their classrooms. The counselors whisked my daughter away to her classroom so I didn’t have a chance to see the gender composition. I asked her to text me at lunch with a pulse on how it was going.
The following year, I decided to combine a week I needed to spend at VMware’s Palo Alto HQ with an opportunity for her to try ID Tech again, but this time hosted at Stanford. She was willing to give it another try, thinking it was cool to “attend Stanford”. Once again, I dropped her off at the sign-in area and hoped for a better outcome than we experienced on the MIT campus the prior summer. At pickup time, she joyfully jumped in my rental car bubbling over about all the fun girls who were in her mobile app game design class. Just like her, some were there because their parents were in the valley for work and others were locals and long-time ID Tech participants. Not only did she have a lot more fun than the prior summer, but she accomplished a lot more in that week than I would have expected. We were both thrilled.
Flash forward to last summer and another year with ID Tech at MIT. My daughter was pretty into Minecraft at the time and was eager to go deep and get better at programming in general. She is a very go-with-the-flow kind of kid and told me she didn’t care if she was the only girl, she just wanted to geek out for a week after her return from a month at sleep-away camp. After such a good experience on the west coast the year before, I hoped that I’d see a trend shift here and she’d have other girls in her course. Alas, once again, she was the only one.
While I only have one data point of one summer in the valley, it was pretty interesting to experience such a different situation out there as compared to here. Are more households tech savvy out there because of the thick concentration of tech jobs? Is the bar higher in Silicon Valley schools such that kids out there are exposed to programming/technology earlier? Perhaps it’s climate and spending a week inside to code is a welcome break from sunshine (?!) whereas here we take every moment we can to get our kids outside before the next snomageddon.
Or, perhaps the girls here are not signing up because, like my kiddo, they’re worried they’ll be the only girl.
“I was right, I am the only girl. AGAIN!” was the text I received during her lunch break last Monday. I told her to hang in there and get as much as she could out of the course. But, I felt so very disappointed. Where are the girls that were shown so prominently on the brochure? Why are parents not signing up their girls for these cool classes? It’s Oculus for Pete’s sake!
My biggest concern here above all is that this is one of the biggest factors that impacts the pipeline of young women choosing technical degrees and jobs. If 8-13 year-old girls think their only option to learn how to code or experiment with new technology like Virtual Reality is to be an outlier in a room full of boys, they won’t sign up. Even now, while she learned a lot and got along just fine with the “gamer boys” (her nickname for them) in her class, my daughter is desperately looking into more girl-friendly programs for her age group next summer. Thankfully, now that she’s older, there are programs like Girls Who Code or Technovation. Even though I am a huge fan of programs like these and they give girls the critical mass of peer support they need, I worry it swings the pendulum the other way. I want to see balance in these programs. Not programs for just girls or those that cater to just boys.
So, how do we solve this problem? Some suggestions:
- Parents: Sign up your girls for programming summer camps! In most cases it’s ONE week. One! Your kids will survive a week of being indoors most of a day, trust me. And if not in the summer, sign them up during the school year or during school vacations (gasp!). Also, have them sign up with a friend to further balance whatever program they choose. And if you have boys interested in tech, try to sign them up for programs that are diverse too! The younger boys are sitting next to girls who are coding, the more “normal” it’ll feel to them as the grow up with technology.
- Tech Camps: Don’t just try to recruit girls, sign them up. Reach out to faculty and school technology programs that have girls enrolled and develop partnerships that drive these girls to your camps. Also, try to mix up your courses so it’s not eight solid hours a day of programming. Stop catering to the boys who play video games all day and offer time to run outside or maybe even swim in the afternoon. Kids learn fast. There’s a lot they can learn in a week without having to sit in front of their desktop the whole time. And please, for the love of God, stop plastering your brochures and websites with just pictures of girls. Show boys and girls working and having fun together. Foster diversity.
- Groups that target professional technical women: Invite young girls to some of your events or encourage mentoring between your members and the girls’ programs mentioned above. If more young girls interested in tech have role models, they are more likely to persevere in rooms full of boys. Maybe even start a camp of your own?
As the VR camp came to a close, I attended a showcase to see what my daughter had accomplished for the week. It was pretty cool to navigate the funky landscapes and terrains she had designed as though I was in them via the Rift. She was proud of what she had learned and was eager to download Unity at home so she could keep working on her project. I asked her how she felt about the week overall and she said “It wasn’t so bad this year being the only girl, in fact the best part was that I had the bathroom all to myself.”
Got ideas about how to get more young girls into tech? Please share in the comments!