NEW YORK -- Google wants to see more women in technology, and it's funding a $50 million initiative to encourage girls to learn how to code in an effort to close the gender gap.
Thursday night the company kicked off the Made with Code initiative here with celebrities former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and actress and comedienne Mindy Kaling.
Kaling, who emceed the event, said she has tons of ideas for apps but no idea to how make them work. She said she'd like to create a "What's his deal?" app that takes a picture of guy and tells you whether he's single, married, a weirdo, or what his car is like. Another idea is a Shazaam-like app for perfume.
"People my age have a million ideas for apps," she said. "But we have no idea how to build them. Last week in the movies, I didn't even know how to turn off the flashlight on my phone."
Kaling isn't alone. Women are woefully under-represented in the technology industry. Only about 20 percent of software developers in the US are women, according to the Labor Department. Last month, even Google admitted only 17 percent of its tech workers are women.
The gender disparity is a big problem for Google and other tech companies who need qualified engineers to drive growth and innovation in their businesses. The fact that these companies are missing a good chunk of the nation's workforce isn't helping the situation. What's more, it doesn't look like the situation will get better anytime soon, as only 12 percent of today's computer science degrees go to women.
Google wants to see these numbers increase, and it's doing something about it. On Thursday the company kicked of the Made with Code website, which is designed to encourage young girls in middle and high school to learn how to code. The company also announced it would be funding the initiative, along with key partners such as Girl Scouts of the USA and Girls, Inc., to the tune of $50 million over the next three years.
Kaling, who is an actress, writer, comedian, and director, admitted she has never written code herself. She emphasized that like many women in Silicon Valley, she was an outsider in the all-boys world of Hollywood. And yet, she has managed to find success.
"Hollywood wasn't exactly begging for a show about a chubby gynecologist, who was unlucky in love," she said of her hit sitcom The Mindy Project. "But that's what they got."
She said that in the same way she made her mark in entertainment, young girls could do the same thing in technology. Even for girls who aren't interested in going into the technology field per se, she said a background in coding will allow them to approach whatever their passion is with technical skills that are in high-demand to "succeed in all of the awesome stuff you guys are going to accomplish."
Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, who was at the event representing the Clinton Foundation, said girls need to be encouraged to become the next generation of coders because they need to play a bigger role in our tech-driven society.
"Right now, our voices aren't being heard," she said.
Google's Made with Code initiative is designed to give girls that encouragement by giving them role models to follow and ideas for how computer coding fits into the activities and interests they already love.
The website, which was launched at the event, features profiles of several female entrepreneurs, engineers, and artists who have all used their knowledge of computer coding to pursue their passions in fashion, music, dance, animation, cancer research, and more. It also makes available Google's free Blockly learn-to-code software, which in one lesson lets girl's design a bracelet that is then 3D printed by Shapeways. The software, which was also shown off at the event, also teaches how to create animated GIFs or build beats for a music track.
Google X Vice President Megan Smith said that learning to code is like learning to read. The best way to learn is to be exposed to it. She said encouragement at school and at home is critical to inspiring girls to even try coding. She added that parents don't need to be techies themselves to encourage a love of technology.
"Just tell your daughter she will be good at it," she said. "Because she will."