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After 10 years, Girls Who Code ‘made coding cool’ - but toxic tech culture means ‘there’s still such a long way to go’

Girls Who Code has taught computer science skills to roughly 500,000 girls across the world.

Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani And CEO Tarika Barrett

This story originally appeared on CNBC, written by Tom Huddleston Jr.

Ten years ago, 20 girls from high schools across New York City gave up seven weeks of their summer to gather in a tech company’s Flatiron Building conference room and learn the basics of computer programming.

At the time, it didn’t necessarily feel like that big of a deal — but that experiment became the inaugural summer program of Girls Who Code. Founded in 2012 by Reshma Saujani, the New York-based nonprofit works to close the gender gap in computer science jobs, partially by creating a steady pipeline of female talent with STEM backgrounds.

Girls Who Code has taught computer science skills — from basic coding to designing algorithms and websites — to roughly 500,000 girls across the world, a number it aims to double over the next decade. More than a third of those participants have gone on to earn computer science-related college degrees, compared to 5% of U.S. women overall, the organization says.

Girls Who Code has now raised over $100 million in total from some of the world’s biggest companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Walmart. Yet, Saujani notes, today’s percentage of women tech industry workers – about 32% – is actually three percentage points lower than in 1984, according to a 2020 joint study from Girls Who Code and Accenture.

“We’re not moving the needle fast enough,” Saujani, now the chair of Girls Who Code’s board of directors, tells CNBC Make It. “The numbers of women in tech are not that different than they were 10 years ago.”

That means the organization, on its 10th anniversary, is facing a crossroads: Tech’s gender gap may be more than just a talent pipeline problem. And Girls Who Code needs an expanded focus if it wants to make a bigger difference over the next 10 years.

‘Where are the girls?’

Girls Who Code is the product of a failed political campaign: Saujani is a former corporate lawyer who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, and ran for a U.S. Congressional seat in New York in 2010. Her bid came up short, but on the campaign trail, she saw something interesting.

Actually, it was more about what she didn’t see.

“I would go into [a] computer science classroom, and literally just see, like, lines and lines and lines of boys trying to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg,” she says. “I was just like: Where are the girls?” 

Part of the issue, Saujani says, is that girls can get dissuaded from STEM education topics at a young age. Despite being the daughter of two engineers, “I got it in my head [early on] that I wasn’t good at it,” she says. “I think that’s what happens with a lot of girls.”

Dr. Tarika Barrett, who took over as Girls Who Code’s CEO in April 2021, says another problem is that high-profile tech role models are often male.

“Our data tells us: Before girls are even 10 years old, they’ve already internalized so many of these cultural touchstones about what a computer scientist looks like,” she says. “It resonates with them throughout their entire lives.”

Those data points are core to Girls Who Code’s mission: Funneling more women into an industry where entry-level employees can land annual salaries over $150,000 at companies like Google and Facebook, Saujani says, could be “this great equalizer, in terms of poverty alleviation ... you could literally have millions of girls march into the middle class.”

Changing the culture

Girls Who Code CEO Tarika Barrett With Students

Step one: Encourage a cultural sea change in STEM education.

Barrett says she’s proud of Girls Who Code’s various awareness campaigns, from a book series for young readers to a joint 2020 Super Bowl commercial with skincare brand Olay, featuring stars Lily Singh and Busy Phillips as astronauts. Girls Who Code has even made music videos with rappers like Lizzo and Doja Cat.

“These campaigns aren’t just entertainment,” Barrett says. “Every time a girl, and especially a Black or brown girl, sees themselves reflected in something like this, it can be game-changing.”

The change in perspective is palpable, Saujani says. A decade ago, she often heard from parents who struggled to get their daughters interested in coding, saying: “It’s just not cool.”
Now, she says, she’s “inundated with people like, ‘Will you take a picture with me? My daughter is the captain of her robotics team!’ We did change [the] culture, and we made coding cool.”

The second step, both Saujani and Barrett say, is much harder for Girls Who Code to impact — because it revolves around the culture at many U.S. tech companies.

“Half of women leave tech roles by the age of 35, with many of them saying that their workplaces were still inhospitable to women,” Barrett says, citing the study from Girls Who Code and Accenture. Harassment often creates toxic work cultures: In 2020, nonprofit Women Who Tech found that more than 40% of female tech employees said they’d been sexually harassed by a superior.

Women now make up just 26% of the workforce in computer science-related jobs – with Black and Latinx women making up only about 5%, collectively – according to a study from the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

More than half of Girls Who Code alumni come from historically underrepresented racial or socioeconomic groups, the organization says — but that focus has yet to result in significant industry change.

“And we still have half of women in tech saying that they lack female role models,” Barrett says.

The next 10 years

Barrett and Saujani say they’re realistic about the limits of their work, and just how much needs to happen before gender equity in the computer science field is a realistic possibility.

Both suggest Girls Who Code could better leverage its partnerships with tech giants — like Twitter and Facebook, for example — to help make their environments better for female employees.

“Our research also found that more inclusive work cultures could actually increase the number of women in tech by three million,” Barrett says. “So much of this is really encouraging companies to look deeply at their own practices.”

With that in mind, Barrett says, Girls Who Code has a new goal: Achieve gender parity in new, entry-level tech jobs by 2030. Once you get girls interested in computer science, you need to make sure they can actually go on to land careers in tech as young women, she says.

To that end, Girls Who Code has rolled out a workforce development program aimed at matching its college-aged alumni with potential tech jobs and female tech mentors. Last year, the nonprofit also partnered with the Biden Administration on an initiative to create more career pathways for women in cybersecurity and tech.

The new focus means having “harder conversations” with tech companies, says Barrett. And while there’s no “magical” solution, she notes, “it’s the kind of self-reflection that leads to shifting away from these white male offices and creating spaces that more accurately reflect the world that we’re living in today.”

That’s much easier said than done, but Barrett says she’s undeterred. “We’re on track,” she says. ”[But] there’s still such a long way to go.”