No, really. How do we get girls to code?


A list of the top words females familiar and unfamiliar with the study of "computer science" associate with those words. Courtesy of Google.

In the middle of the 1980s, 37 percent of computer science majors were women. As of 2012, that number was more like 18 percent.

So says Google, which released a new study Thursday on the motivations of women who go into computer science professions, what keeps them away and how society can work to reverse that trend.

According to the study, which surveyed 1,600 men and women across the country, women and girls are half as likely to be encouraged  to go into computer science fields as men and boys are. They also aren't really taught what studying computer science actually means.

Among females familiar with computer science, the top words they associate with “computer science” are: “technology,” “programming,” “future,” and “fun.”

For those that aren’t? Try: “boring,” “technology,” “hard” and “difficult.”

That exacerbates the fact the women and girls also tend to have lower confidence in their abilities to pursue science and math degrees -- credentials that, in turn, lead to some of the highest-paying jobs in America today.

It’s certainly a problem that others have noticed. The White House, to name just one, has a initiative to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Girl Scouts of America began offering a "Computer Expert" badge as far back as 2011.

It’s also been a focus for Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn, which have all recently released data that show a troubling gender imbalance in their own companies to raise awareness about diversity problems in the technology world. LinkedIn had the most balanced workforce -- 39 percent are women.  At Yahoo, women comprise 37 percent of its U.S. workforce; at Google, it's 30 percent.  The imbalance only got greater when looking at leadership positions at all three companies.

Fixing the problem is going to take time.  According to the study, most of the decision-making about whether or not to pursue a computer science degree takes place well before college. So, Google also said Thursday that it’s launching an all-star group initiative aimed at getting girls excited about computer science and coding, and investing $50 million in other programs, such as the Khan Academy or CodeAcademy, that do the same.

The technology giant is working with partners such as the Girl Scouts of America, actress Mindy Kaling, Chelsea Clinton and others to get young girls excited about coding at a young age and, possibly, encourage more women to join computer science professions down the line. Google is also working with the Science and Entertainment Exchange to show more female engineers in family TV and film to get the idea into girls' heads earlier, a move similar to the effort to get more female figures in Lego sets.

The initiative, called “Made with Code,” will invite teenage girls to start projects in its "Blockly" visual programming editor -- projects that include creating animated gifs, composing digital soundtracks and designing 3-D printed bracelets that Google will ship to young women's homes. It will also include a resource directory for parents and girls to find more coding opportunities.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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