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Girls Who Code Initiative Seeks to Attract the Next Generation of Female Software Engineers

‘Girls Who Code’ Initiative Seeks to Attract the Next Generation of Female Software Engineers

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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.

“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. T

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.”

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