Google has promised to do all it can to recruit more women into Silicon Valley, and now the company is putting its money where its PR is. On Thursday, it launched a $50 million initiative to teach young girls how to code.
Just last month, Google announced that only 17% of its tech employees are women. The gender disparity is a dire issue for all tech companies. There will be 1.4 million computing jobs available in 2020, but only 400,000 computer-science graduates from U.S. universities to fill them. Part of the problem is that only 12% of computer-science degrees go to women, and in order for Silicon Valley to survive and thrive, it must be able to recruit more engineering talent from the other 50% of the population.
Realizing the extent of the problem, Google is launching Made With Code, a website that includes coding projects, stories from female technology role models and resources for parents. The girl-focused initiative kicks off Thursday at a New York event for 150 high-school-age girls hosted by Mindy Kaling and Chelsea Clinton.
“Coding is a fundamental skill that’s going to be a part of almost everything,” Megan Smith, VP of Google[x], tells TIME. “So for kids to really at a minimum just be able to express themselves in code and make things and feel confident, that would be important — no matter what their career is.”
Google has invested a lot more than just money in the project. The company conducted research to determine why girls are opting out of learning how to code: the number of female computer-science majors has dropped dramatically since 1984, when 37% of computer-science degrees went to women. How do we get them back into computer-science classrooms?
Google found that most girls decide before they even enter college whether they want to learn to code — so the tech world must win them over them at a young age. They also found that there were four major factors that determined whether girls opted into computer science: social encouragement, self-perception, academic exposure and career perception.
So the company created the Made With Code website to target these influences.
To give parents the resources to encourage young girls, Google teamed up with all-girls coding groups and camps across the country to create a national database of programs. Parents can enter their ZIP code and find the one closest to them. The study found that social encouragement matters more to girls than to boys and that any exposure to coding was better than none at all, so kids who cannot take a computer-science class in school would gain something from attending an after-school program, camp or even playing a computer game at home.
Increased exposure will build up girls’ confidence in their coding abilities. In a word-association part of the study, girls who were unfamiliar with computer science identified it most with the words boring, technology, hard and difficult, while those who had had some exposure to computer science used the words technology, programming, future and fun.
“One of the most important things that we can do is get girls into our computer-science classrooms across our country, including elementary school,” says Smith. “Vietnam is teaching computer science from second grade. Malaysia, China — we’re seeing the U.K. starting to do this at an elementary level. So the best thing to do would be to get them into our schools.”
To introduce girls to coding before they even attend programs or camps, Google created 13 different coding projects for girls on the site. One allows girls to code their own bracelet in five to 10 minutes; the bracelet is then 3-D printed and sent to them in the mail. The creators hope that the fun projects, designed for beginners, will connect to interests that girls already have.
And finally the site includes a list of “makers and mentors,” female role models who use coding in their jobs in a variety of ways. Since less than 1% of high school girls see computer science as part of their future, Google thought it was important that girls not only understand what coding is but could envision themselves using it in their careers. Right now, girls can’t see themselves joining the Silicon Valley boys’ club. Part of the problem is Hollywood: the ratio of male to female engineers in children’s TV shows and movies in 14 to 1, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, which Google has partnered with (among many other all-girls coding programs) to spread this initiative. “That’s one of the things that the Google Study shows: people still don’t really know what it means to be a computer scientist. They still think it’s a white guy typing at a computer in a basement somewhere. And as much as we can show them a connection between computer science and the things that they’re interested in — international development or graphic arts or dance or medicine — and show them how technology can help them in that search, that’s powerful. That’s how we can convert them.”
One such mentor is Miral Kotb, who founded iLuminate, a dance troupe that competed on America’s Got Talent that uses coding to program lights on their costumes. Few girls might imagine that they could combine something as creative as dance with something as logical as coding, but Kotb hopes that her involvement with the program will teach girls that they can use coding in many different careers.
“There’s a lot of negative stigma with female computer-science developers. But there shouldn’t be — it’s not nerdy or isolating or hard in the way people think. I think the way the female mind works is organizing things and putting them together in a way that makes sense,” Kotb says. “And that’s what software development is: encountering a problem and figuring out how to solve it. And that’s cool.”
Other makers and mentors include Danielle Feinberg of Pixar, Erica Kochi of the UNICEF Innovation Unit, Ebony ‘Wondagurl’ Oshunrinde, who mixes beats for Jay-Z, Brittany Wenger, who creates code to fight cancer, and Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd.
Google hopes Made With Code will invade both households and classrooms. It has pledged a $15 million investment over the next three years in computer-science grants to develop the Girls and computer-science education system. It has also partnered with national organizations like the Girl Scouts to bring coding to programs in which girls already participate.