Tackling the tech gender gap by teaching girls to code

Chicago educators fight the industry's 'brogramming' trend

October 11, 2012

Tricia Bobeda

Computer programming seemed like alphabet soup to Keautishay Young when she was a freshman.

But after four years at Chicago Tech Academy, she can rattle off half a dozen programming languages she’s comfortable working in.

“We learned HTML, CSS, C-Sharp, C++,” Young said. “We learned a little bit of Java, HTML5 and CSS3.”

At the charter school on the southwest side, teens aren’t just using computers to browse Facebook. They’re learning to build their own websites and smartphone apps.

“It’s very confusing when you first start because you don’t know what it is,” Young said. “This is stuff you learn when you go to college your freshman year, so it’s pretty cool that we’re doing it now.”

Chicago Tech Academy is pretty evenly split between male and female students.

When Young leaves high school, she may be in for a shock.The gender gap in tech majors and careers is extreme. Nationwide, only 12 percent of computer science majors are women.

And even though women make up more than half of the workforce, they only hold about a quarter of the technology jobs. That’s according to research from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

Don Yanek is a computer science teacher at Northside College Prep in Chicago. He said the barriers for women in technology start way before they reach the classroom or workforce.

“It’s more like the analogy of the dad and the son working on the engine of the car,” Yanek said. “The dad or somebody is sitting down with the boy at the computer and tinkering with the computer. That subtle bias of -- this isn’t for girls. We need to overcome that very early.”

Christianne Corbett is a senior researcher with the American Association of University Women and the author of the 2010 study: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

She said the severe gender gap is a problem for both technology producers and consumers.

“The people who are at the design table and doing computer programming are determining what kind of products we have [and] the direction of technology,” Corbett said. “So when women aren’t there doing the programming, doing the designing, their priorities are not being given priority. I think if we want our technology to represent our society, then we need to have programmers, engineers, computer scientists in proportion to the number of men and women in our society.”

NCWIT reports that for more than two decades, the Computer Science AP exam consistently had the lowest percentage of female test takers. It hovers at around 18 percent.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is what constitutes computer science," said NCWIT researcher Lecia Barker. "It’s not the use of software tools that are already developed but instead is the development of tools. The problem here is that teachers often don’t know that themselves. They think that computer science is computer literacy.”

She said society bombards women with messages that technology is a man’s territory. “There does seem to be a kind of cultural disconnect between the feminine and the technical,” Barker said.

Chicago Tech Academy co-founder and director Matt Hancock wants to make a dent in the stereotype that coding is just for nerdy white guys.

“A lot of young women come to us with a lot of what you’d think of as stereotypical, these are good jobs for women kind of aspirations,” Hancock said. “We spend a number of years trying to not just expose them to the different range of jobs that are out there in technology but get them really passionate about it.”

By avoiding computer science, women are losing out on good paying jobs in a booming industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says careers like software and web development are growing fast. Learn to speak geek, and you probably won’t have trouble finding work.

That’s part of Baker Franke’s pitch when he recruits students for his AP Computer Science class at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

“I tell that to my students and their parents all the time,” Franke said. “But still why don’t more women take it? It’s got to be in the schools. It’s got to be in the culture. It’s gotta be the role models. It’s got to be the stereotypes of what the field is, who is in it and the kind of work that they do.”

Franke worries a lack of women reinforces the idea of tech as a boys’ only clubhouse.

Some have even nicknamed the male-dominated atmosphere as ‘brogramming culture.’

Franke said he works hard to make sure his classroom doesn’t slip into ‘brogrammer’ mode and alienate women.

He succeeded with Chicago resident Aimee Lucido. She liked the AP class so much that it inspired her to major in computer science at Brown University.

Lucido said she wanted no part of computer science classes in middle school.

“I think it definitely had to do with the fact that it was kind of a boy thing,” Lucido said. “And
when you’re in eighth grade that matters a lot.”

She doesn’t mind a bit of ‘brogrammer’ culture - she just associates it with the fact that coders work hard and play hard.

But Lucido did admit being a woman working in tech can feel isolating.

Like last summer, when she interned at Facebook.

“Facebook was amazing, but the one thing that I noticed for the first time was that there was a huge gender gap,” Lucido said. “I was friends with maybe two girls at Facebook who were engineers and maybe 30 or 40 guys. I started to really miss women, which I’d never experienced before.”

Back at Chicago Tech Academy, the girls don’t seemed fazed by the gender gap they’ll face working in IT jobs.

The young women learning to code here have big plans. They see technology skills as a mean to an end.

One has two loves: computers and fashion. She wants to build software for clothing designers. Another figures tech skills will make her better at solving crimes as a forensic scientist. A third wants to help build web tools that can help the United Nations tackle global problems.

Young has already pitched a business idea to industry leaders as part of an entrepreneurship program.

A developer from Groupon liked her idea, but grilled her about how she’d get the business up and running.

“He asked us ‘so how will you go about building and creating your app,’” Young said.

The developer might have doubted Young’s programming skills -- but she didn’t.

“Me, I took it upon myself to tell him that we were going to do it because we go to a technology school,” Young said. “At this school they make you feel like everyone is equal...not be like scared of what somebody else is going to think or like if the man is above, we try to be on the same level as him.”

And even those that don’t picture themselves working in tech fields forever say learning to code in high school has been useful.

“Seeing as how the process of being a coder is really difficult and you kind of learn to look at things from different aspects and analyze situations better, I think the whole core of that will help me,” said senior Martha Zuniga. "The process behind technology is really important to help to solve problems in the world today.”

Freshman Edith Ontiveros is already hooked on coding. She’s dreaming up the next Facebook.

“What I was hoping to do in the future is create like a popular social website just like Mark Zuckerberg did,” Ontiveros said. “He makes a lot of money and you know I want to have a successful life like he does.”