How To Fix the Tech Gender Gap: Make Girls Play Video Games

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June 7 2012 9:22 AM

How To Fix the Gender Gap in Technology

Make your daughter play video games. It will help her get a high-paying job.

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Harvey Mudd also launched a summer computer science research internship for 10 female rising sophomores annually and began taking dozens of women CS students each year to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, where they get face time with professional mentors from companies like Cisco and IBM.* Since Harvey Mudd launched these initiatives, the CS program has grown from 31 percent to 42 percent female. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, HP, and Yelp have flooded the campus during recruiting season in a frantic search for female programmers.

K-12 educators, too, know the importance of getting girls hooked on the kind of “computational thinking” that makes programming possible. The Academy for Software Engineering, a public school whose curriculum will be built around computer programming and Web development, will open in New York City this September. Just one-quarter of the incoming freshman class is female, but the school’s founders, who are closely tied to the New York tech community, have ambitious plans for pairing female students with women mentors working in the field, in order to tamp down on attrition, direct girls into meaningful careers, and recruit more female students to the school in future classes.

In Pajara Valley, Calif., south of Santa Cruz, researcher Jill Denner launched a program that teaches low-income Latina girls and boys, in gender-segregated classrooms, to create their own computer games. Laura Reasoner Jones, a computer teacher at McNair Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va., launched the GEMS Club: Girls Excelling in Math and Science. The club is an afterschool program that gets girls busy building rockets, studying strawberry DNA, and programming their own computer games using free Web-based tools such as ALICE, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, and SCRATCH, developed by MIT.

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Because recession-era budget cuts have made it difficult for many schools to direct resources to “extras” outside the core curriculum, some of the most successful efforts to direct girls toward computer programming are happening entirely outside of schools, though often in partnership with them. Jasmine Gao, 18, attended New York’s Brooklyn Technical High School, but it wasn’t until she participated in an afterschool program called the Technovation Challenge, hosted at Google’s New York headquarters, that she realized her interest in gaming could translate into a career.

Run by a nonprofit called Iridescent Learning, Technovation teaches teams of low-income girls programming and business skills by asking them to develop a real mobile Web app and then “pitch” it to a team of judges. Jasmine’s team developed “Trending,” an app that shows shoppers fashion trends and directs them to nearby stores or online retailers that carry a specific shoe or skirt. The team won second place in New York City. The winning effort was “HailNYC,” a girl-developed app that allows mobile phone users to communicate their location to taxi drivers.

Jasmine is now studying finance and computer information systems at Baruch College and hopes to someday launch her own tech business. “I had this preconception that it was mostly geeky men who did programming and it was extremely math and science heavy,” Jasmine said. “But it’s actually easy. And the opportunities presented through it are enormous.”

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Fred Kaplan explains why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Correction, June 7, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of Grace Hopper. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at the Marshall Project and author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession to be published in September 2014.