Cracking the Girl Code

Tech companies are funding programs that teach girls to code

Aug 01, 2014 | By Eliana Docterman for TIME
DINA LITOVSKY FOR TIME

The nonprofit Girls Who Code encourages girls to consider entering the tech industry.

Twenty high-school girls sit hunched in front of laptops around a table at AT&T’s office in New York City. Riya Satara, 17, types a series of ones and zeros to adjust a paddleball game she’s designing. She’s trying to make the ball follow a certain path. It’s her first week learning to code–writing the instructions that tell a computer what to do.

Satara is attending summer camp with Girls Who Code. The national nonprofit encourages girls to enter the tech industry. This camp is just one of a half-dozen similar programs around the country offering coding classes for girls like Satara who have shied away from the subject. Many of the programs are supported by tech giants like Google.

Members of Girls Who Code, ages 16 to 18, program together in the office of an advertising company in New York City.
DINA LITOVSKY FOR TIME
Members of Girls Who Code, ages 16 to 18, program together in the office of an advertising company in New York City.

“I can stand on a stage in front of 700 kids,” says Satara. “But I was too scared to take a computer-science class where I would have been the only girl in a room of 19 guys.”

Changing that mind-set is a national challenge. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million computing jobs, and not enough qualified graduates to fill them. That’s why programs like Girls Who Code are trying to bring women into the industry. Today, only 12% of computer-science degrees go to women.

Girls Welcome

Girls Who Code started in 2012 with 20 girls in one classroom. Today, the program graduates 3,000 girls from clubs and camps across the country. Founder Reshma Saujani says 95% of graduates want to major in computer science in college.

Educators are trying to understand how to engage girls in computer science early. Some universities are now modeling their classes after those designed by Girls Who Code, which stresses the importance of solving real-world problems. The idea is that girls are interested in helping their communities. The program also assigns group projects because research shows that girls flourish when they work as a team.

But gender balance won’t likely be reached until coding becomes a part of the school day. Currently 9 out of 10 schools in the U.S. don’t offer computer science. The nonprofit Code.org aims to change that by offering coding classes as early as elementary school. China, Vietnam and Britain already offer such classes.

There’s an App for That

Some developers aren’t waiting for U.S. schools to catch up. The app Hopscotch teaches children as young as 8 how to build their own games with code. Hopscotch founder Jocelyn Leavitt says her male friends taught themselves programming when they were kids. They played sports- or war-themed video games and then re-created them.

“We wanted to tap into that desire to create something but make it more accessible to both boys and girls,” she says.

So far it’s a hit. More than 1.5 million projects have been coded with Hopscotch in the past year, about half by girls.

Riya Satara says if she’d learned coding earlier, she wouldn’t have thought it was just for boys. Now she wants to spread her enthusiasm for tech by starting a Girls Who Code club at her school. And she’s finally enrolling in a computer-science class.

At the advanced level.