Why There’s No One Named Ruby Programming in Ruby

As a non-technical member of the Atomic team, and one of only 5 women, I am acutely aware of the shortage of female computer programmers in the world. Lucky for me, I work with a fantastic group of human beings, predominately male, who care deeply about the dearth of women in their industry. At AO, caring is not passive. Caring, or “giving a shit” as we like to call it here, is about actively and passionately pursuing change.

AO is always in pursuit of female CS programming candidates because we understand things will always work better, people will always benefit, when you have diversity in your workspace. Different perspectives equal a better, more complete product. That’s why we are focusing on engaging young women, ages 12-13, in a dialogue about what computer science can mean for them and their future.

We’re doing this because we know that 12-13, or roughly 7th grade, is the age when most young girls are beginning to solidify their opinions about what they can and can’t do. This is the time when girls are deciding they “aren’t cut out for math and science” and begin to lose interest, as well as confidence, in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. The sooner we tackle this issue, the more likely we are to have female computer scientists knocking on our door ten years from now. What’s good for women is good for Atomic, and the world.

If most people knew the appalling statistics of women who graduate with STEM degrees, they’d feel ill. Only 15.1% of female college freshman are choosing to pursue STEM degrees and scarier yet, only 4-5 % are in computer science. Wait, it gets even more shocking. According to the AAUW, America Association of University Women, the number of women earning degrees in computer science is actually DECLINING. In the mid 80’s, 36% of computer science degrees were awarded to women. In 2006, that number dwindled to 20%.

There are all kinds of arguments and theories about why so few women are choosing careers in disciplines like engineering, computer science, and physics. Many of them make rudimentary extrapolations about what the “female brain” is “wired” to do and end up down the terrifying path to biological essentialism. Some are better, acknowledging certain differences in cognitive function but not equating those variations to any innate difference in ability.

For example, men tend to score higher than women on tests relating to spatial skills. Spatial skills, or the ability to visualize/mentally manipulate 2-D and 3-D figures, are pretty essential for technologically rigorous professions like engineering or computer science.  However, when those same women go through simple spatial skill training courses, their skills improve dramatically in a short amount of time.

The answer for many young women can be as simple as facilitating early, significant exposure to tasks that require the use of spatial skills. If young girls played with LEGOS half as often as young boys, they might be in a very different position when they start middle school.  This is going to take a lot more forethought and action than changing blocks from red to pink and including instructions on how to build beauty salons. Check out this disturbing article about what LEGO is up to. Feel free to sign the petition while you’re there.

Let us not forget the ever-contentious field of mathematics, another essential skill in the world of computers and engineering. Once again, the AAUW has provided some solid statistics. They state:

“Historically, boys have outperformed girls in math, but in the past few decades the gender gap has narrowed, and today girls are doing as well as boys in math on average (Hyde et al., 2008). Girls are earning high school math and science credits at the same rate as boys and are earning slightly higher grades in these classes (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2007)”

However, they go on to report that boys continue to outperform girls on “high stakes tests”. Meaning that when girls are under pressure to perform in math, or any other STEM subject, their internalized sense of gender expectations distracts them from the ultimate goal, i.e. “society” expects women to do poorly in math; therefore women expect themselves to do poorly in math. It’s a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy and it’s often not even conscious until there is external pressure to do well, e.g. SATs, ACTs, GREs, and other “high stakes tests”.  See Stereotype Threat.

In relation to these internalized gender expectations, one of the most significant disadvantages that young girls grapple with is a general, systemic lack of confidence.  I know this is a strong claim but I would argue that though a lot of women gain confidence with experience, age, and education, they are rarely socialized to have bold certainty or be self-reliant.  Even those who develop strong convictions at a young age are often undermined by the restrictive gender roles present in many schools, homes, and the media.

These gender roles not only increase the difficulty of participation in the tech world for young women, but also in their basic awareness of it. There are obviously very few women in the world of computer science. I would argue that one of the biggest factors affecting these disappointing numbers is a basic lack of exposure to the tech industry and the jobs within it. You must first be aware of all the opportunities before you can determine your feelings about them!

The immediate answer is simple: exposure, exposure, exposure. Atomic Object is taking this responsibility on by revamping our BitCamp learning opportunity.  By focusing on middle-school girls, ages 12-13, the new BitCamp will attempt to address the imbalance of the sexes in our industry. We are planning a daylong camp during which girls will learn to write code, breathe code, and most importantly, love code.

They will be in a fun, welcoming environment run by Atoms, and some special guests, where they can feel free to ask “stupid” questions or express their insecurities. But more than anything, they will be given the chance to rewrite the story so many young girls have written for themselves: the story that starts with “I’m not good at math” and ends with only 20% of the computer science degrees in the hands of women. In a country where the unemployment rate is 8.1%, and a state like Michigan that’s been suffering economically for years, it’s our responsibility to tap into the latent potential of all our citizens, especially women interested in technology.

There is an enormous demand for software developers and designers. It’s an industry that is growing all the time and yet so few women are equipped to take advantage of these opportunities. It is AO’s intention to help change this by giving young women the exposure, tools, and confidence they need to enter the tech world, keyboards blazing.

  • Isaac Watson says:

    A standing round of applause for your efforts! I was already astonished at the studies that Carl pointed out in a previous post about the dwindling numbers of CS graduates, and I’m glad you hear you’re taking it upon yourself to raise awareness of the lack of women in STEM fields.

    The good news is, you’re not the only one. Black Girls Code is a nonprofit in the Bay Area that is dedicated to bringing young girls of color into STEM fields as well, and I’m sure there are others out there as well.

    You’re doing good work!

    • Mallory Bartz says:

      Thanks, Isaac! Black Girls Code looks really compelling. It appears that they’re coming to Detroit. We happen to be opening a new office in the big D……how convenient. :) Definitely have to check them out.

      Thanks for the great resource and supportive comment. It’s incredibly important, and my goal as a responsible feminist, to acknowledge all marginalized groups in the tech industry and beyond. Thanks for reminding me.

  • […] to the fun of software engineering and all the opportunities available. It is specifically targeted to girls to help them understand that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related […]

  • […] my colleague Mallory recently wrote about early exposure as a key way to get more women involved in software and […]

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