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Tech Industry

Girls Who Code encourages STEM, one coding class at a time

The nonprofit's Summer Immersion Program aims to catch girls before their interest in computer science plummets.

Girls Who Code

Immersed.

James Martin/CNET

On July 12, 2014, Macie Cooper, then a 15-year-old, made a strong statement about her future in her journal. It was definitive; she left nothing to the imagination.

"I have officially decided on this day I'm going to major in computer science," Cooper wrote, while participating in a Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program.

Four years later, Cooper has kept that pledge to herself, majoring in computer science and studio art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Cooper, who has an infectious confidence, says the seven-week program cemented her love of computer programming.

Macie Cooper, 19, is studying computer science and studio art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was a Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program participant in 2014.

Macie Cooper, 19, is studying computer science and studio art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was a Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program participant in 2014.

James Martin/CNET

"A lot of my activities afterward stemmed from me participating in the program," she said. "Because I had the support system, I had the knowledge and I had the confidence."

Girls face countless obstacles in pursuing education in science, technology, engineering and math, a group of studies collectively known as STEM. Those obstacles include stereotypes of what girls should and shouldn't study, gender biases and often unreceptive climates for female students in science and engineering departments at colleges and universities.

Even if they find their way into STEM courses, girls say they feel out of place. More than a quarter of middle school girls and a fifth of high school girls report they're too embarrassed to ask questions, according to a study by Microsoft and KRC Research. In addition, 32 percent of middle school and 35 percent of high school girls report they don't feel supported by their teachers and classmates.

Girls Who Code aims to change that. The 6-year-old program strives to create welcoming spaces for girls interested in programming and close the gender gap in tech. The nonprofit has hosted thousands of incoming 11th and 12th grade girls across the country through its annual Summer Immersion Program since 2012. 

Participants are placed at companies such as Facebook, Ford, Twitter and EA, where they get hands-on classroom education in computer science, take trips to high-profile tech companies and interact with top executives. They learn everything from mobile app development to robotics to web design. This year's program at EA, which started June 18, ends Friday.

The organizers of Girls Who Code hope the program will encourage more tech companies, which are overwhelmingly male, to hire and retain employees from diverse backgrounds. The US tech workforce is three quarters male, according to the Kapor Center, a nonprofit that supports women and people of color in STEM. The situation gets more complex when racial and ethnic minorities are considered, with black and Latino employees accounting for about 7.4 percent and 8 percent of the workforce respectively, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Allison Scott, the Kapor Center's chief research officer, says companies should recruit from wider pools of people, establish diverse boards, create employee resource groups and institute anti-harassment policies. She says there's good reason to do so: studies show diverse companies do better than those that aren't.

McKinsey and Company, a consultancy, found that firms in the top quarter for gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to have above-average financial performance.

That's something Girls Who Code's corporate partners, including EA, recognize. 

"It's a business imperative," says Nadine Blackburn, head of inclusion, diversity and corporate social responsibility at EA. "You can be wildly more successful when you do have [diversity], because you're expanding your footprint and you're able to address different audience groups."

Nadine Blackburn is EA's head of inclusion, diversity and corporate social responsibility.

Nadine Blackburn is EA's head of inclusion, diversity and corporate social responsibility.

James Martin/CNET

Tackling the problem at its roots

The disparity between girls' and boys' involvement in STEM starts early. Girls' interest in computer science drops between the ages of 12 and 14, according to a Google-Gallup study, just when boys are becoming more interested in the field.

There are notable discrepancies between the classroom experiences of boys and girls. Boys are much more likely to have been told by teachers they'd be good at computer science, according to the study. Girls are also less likely to feel they're skilled in STEM or express confidence in their ability to learn computer science. That often leads them to drop out of STEM classes, if they haven't been deterred from enrolling altogether.

Riddhi Mehta, 16, is a participant in the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program at EA.

Riddhi Mehta, 16, is a participant in the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program at EA.

James Martin/CNET

"It's a little intimidating when there's just 15 boys to five girls in the class," says Riddhi Mehta, a 16-year-old participant in the Girls Who Code program at EA.

Stereotypes are another key issue, the Kapor Center's Scott says. The stereotype that women don't pursue STEM careers or that they're unable to advance to leadership positions in those careers is common. Many girls don't have access to female role models and mentors in STEM, which can have a big impact on what they think they can do, she says.

And, of course, women are turned off by the tech industry's reputation for fostering bro culture, the toxic male workplace that's been lampooned in TV shows like Silicon Valley. Men often dismiss women or talk over them, sometimes taking credit for their ideas. Many times, companies simply fail to promote women to leadership roles, despite their performance.

Other programs are also working to promote young women in STEM, including Girls Make Games, a three-week camp that teaches girls ages 8 to 17 how to code their own video games. Partner companies include Sony's PlayStation group, Microsoft and its Xbox team and Intel. Supermodel Karlie Kloss also hosts a summer coding camp for girls ages 13 to 18 called Kode With Klossy, which this year takes place in 25 cities. 

Starting early

STEM initiatives have captured the attention of the nation's highest office. Former President Barack Obama's Computer Science for All initiative launched in 2016 to promote K-12 computer science education. President Donald Trump announced a federal computer science initiative last fall.

"Starting all kids early [in STEM] is about equity," says Ruthe Farmer, chief evangelist at CS for All.

Girls Who Code is part of the broad push to get young girls interested in STEM, and it says it's already making an impact. Its alumni are majoring in computer science or related fields at a rate 15 times the national average, and some girls have returned to their host companies as interns or full-time employees. The organization's #HireMe platform lists internship and employment opportunities from company partners. In 2017, those companies received more than 500 applications for posted positions.

At EA's headquarters in Redwood City, California, around 20 Summer Immersion Program participants start each morning with a journal entry reflecting on the previous day. (Cooper's commitment to computer science was recorded in her Girls Who Code journal.) That's followed by a lecture and a hands-on project.

EA has about 20 participants in this year's Summer Immersion Program.

EA has about 20 participants in this year's Summer Immersion Program.

James Martin/CNET

During the last two weeks of the program, the girls work on a final project that ties together what they've learned. That could involve creating something like a mobile app or a website. For the last two years, Cooper has returned to EA as a teaching assistant.

Cooper says her experiences at EA through Girls Who Code have made her want to come back to the company when she graduates, hopefully as a full-time game developer.

"This company creates the games that made my childhood," she said. "I would love to come back and be a part of that."

First published Aug. 3, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:04 a.m.: Adds information on other coding camps for girls.

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