From the school house to The White House, efforts have been launched to increase the number of women in Information Technology and other STEM-related professions after decades of falling female representation in those fields.
“Women represent a vastly untapped talent pool,” according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), a nonprofit group of universities, private companies and government agencies.
The NCWIT is among the many organizations that provide resources and guidance to girls and women interested in information technology.
Some of these initiatives are focused on K-12 schools, where the level of interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects is often low among girls. Research has shown that negative stereotypes about the ability of girls to master subjects such as math can discourage their participation and hinder their academic achievement.
In 2014, girls represented just 20% of high schoolers who took the Advanced Placement Computer Science A Exam, which focuses on programming, according to the College Board.
The College Board announced in summer 2015 that it was partnering with the nonprofit organization Code.org to increase the diversity of students taking computer science courses.
Another organization trying to encourage diversity in computer programming is Black Girls Code, which helps minority youngsters to gain access to resources that teach them how to code, as well as to peers with shared interests.
Similarly, Girls Who Code works to “inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.” The organization’s efforts include a summer immersion program for high school students, and clubs for middle school, high school and university students.
The NCWIT suggests a number of measures to recruit more high school girls into computing classes, including raising awareness among teachers, advisors and parents, and explaining how coding skills can be applied in a wide range of fields, such as healthcare, forensics and fashion.
The center also offers 10 steps for parents to encourage their daughters to study and have a career in a computer science or information technology field. Recommendations include choosing an activity such as programming camp or robotics club where girls can learn together, and attending science, math and computing events as a family.
College and Beyond
At the postsecondary level, women also are underrepresented in the IT fields. For example, although more than half of college students are female, just 18% of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences were awarded to women in 2011, federal statistics show.
Nationwide, universities are looking to spur interest among girls and women in IT-related degree programs, providing a road map for other colleges to follow.
In early 2016, Florida Institute of Technology is set to begin offering computer science camps for middle and high school girls. The nationally ranked university received a $35,000 gift from AT&T to fund the camps, which will be held at Florida Tech’s Orlando Center.
Camp attendees will focus on software development and coding skills, as well as leadership abilities, and will interact with mentors and potential employers.
“It is critical for our community to prepare girls to pursue 21st-century career opportunities, and Florida Tech is happy to join with AT&T to help make that happen,” Leslie Hielema, vice president of the university’s Orlando Center, said in an August 2015 statement.
Elsewhere, universities have created training programs for high school teachers of computer science and adjusted admissions criteria to make it easier for young women without programming experience to enroll in computer science programs.
Outside the classroom, nonprofit groups such as Girl Develop It provide resources for women who want to learn new skills, including coding and creating web and mobile applications, and gain confidence in their careers.
Employment Opportunities Ahead
According to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women hold more than half of the professional jobs in the U.S. workforce, but only about one-quarter of computing-related jobs.
In the coming years, most of the employment growth in the STEM fields will be in occupations related to computer science, The White House has reported. However, at the current rate, not enough computer science grads will enter the market to meet that demand.
When it comes to closing the gender gap, “there is a lot to be done to increase women’s representation in key STEM fields,” Florida Tech instructor Jarin Eisenberg has noted.