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  • Writer's pictureLinda Calvin

Want to attract more girls to Tech? Let's demystify Computer Science!

Want to attract more girls to Tech? Let's demystify Computer Science!




During my first week at Ivy Tech in April 2019, I attended an event with my new colleagues and a host of educators where Governor Eric Holcomb was speaking about the challenges facing the future workforce. He spoke of how we need to increase the number of people seeking college degrees and credentials. "We need more youth to pursue degrees in computer science. We need more girls in computer science," Holcomb said. Later in the month at a cybersecurity event, I once again heard Governor Holcomb state for the audience the importance of getting more girls interested in cybersecurity and "computer science."


There are so many studies that indicate that diversity fuels innovation. McKinsey reports that companies with the most ethnically diverse teams outperform others by 33 percent. In fact, a recent report published by Reboot Representation in a study done by McKinsey and Pivotal Ventures, revealed that teams with greater gender diversity have certain dynamics that allow for more radical innovation, which is especially critical for tech companies. Additionally, research shows that reaching gender parity in the US tech sector has been estimated to be worth an additional $320 billion to $390 billion in enterprise value." (Reboot Representation, Report Highlights at https://www.rebootrepresentation.org/report-highlights/). We also know that we are not graduating enough students to meet future demand for tech jobs.


Definition of Computer Science

So, we get it! We understand the necessity of diversity in tech. We know that diversity in tech impacts the bottom line for the industry, especially tech. What's the deal then? Why does the gap still exist? There are a number of factors with bias in hiring, lack of outreach to under-represented communities, institutional racism, stereotypes facing girls with an interest in tech. But let's start with that Star Trekkian term: Computer Science.


According to Oxford Languages and Google, because I googled of course, computer science is defined as "the study of the principles and use of computers." Well, that's easy enough, right? Not very descriptive, but seems straightforward. According to Tech Terms, "computer science is the study of computers and computing concepts. It includes both hardware and software as well as networking and the Internet." Well, this is better right? It's closer. There are many schools of thought, from differentiating from computer technology to IT to computer science to computer science equals coding and computer science is about the science of computers. None of the above sounds sexy or attractive to many. "It sounds too Math-y," a friend's teen daughter once said to me. "Besides, what do I do with a computer science degree, just code, blah?"


Demystifying Computer Science: What is it REALLY?

My teen friend was onto something. The answer is yes, you can smash code to create mobile apps, digital products, complex systems, data repositories, websites. So yes, code smashing for sure. But there's more, much more to computer science than coding. Let's Code, These Girls Code, Those Girls Code, Why Not Code, Hey Girl Hey, Let's Code. These organizations are great. But have we thought about those who love tech, but don't want to just code?


  • The WOW Factor! User Experience (UX) development results in that beautiful look and feel you experience when you open your favorite website or application. It will require some coding knowledge, but also principles of design, knowledge of color theory, typography, graphic design, animation, empathy, design thinking - it's creativity. You will also need those magical communications skills to translate your client's mindseye to the screen. It's art and design meets tech.


  • Alexa, what's computer science? Installing devices to a network, those devices talking with other devices to lock doors, turn on lights and alert when it's time to reorder that Illy Intensive Bold Roast coffee. This indeed requires knowledge of computing and networking. This is tech and while having Cisco credentials is certainly sexy for this space, it's not required. Either is being a python or C++ jedi.


  • Geek Squad! Ok, so people make fun of Best Buy Geek Squad. Wrongly I believe. Diagnosing issues with your laptop, figuring out why you cannot connect to WiFi, understanding why your printer keeps printing the lyrics to Baby Shark, over and over, this is tech. And is that "hardware" and "networking" in that Tech Terms definition of computer science.


  • But it looks just like a message from Chase Bank! Cybersecurity is big time. From locking down those Alexa devices, to work laptops and phishing attempts, it's all about cybersecurity. It requires knowledge of networking, some coding, cloud, security of data and information. It requires a love for picking the lock, then preventing others from having the same knowledge.

These are just examples - elementary examples of what TECH is. What things you can do in tech. Are all of these examples of "computer science?" According to the definitions above, yes! Is it all about coding? NO! Is this what Governor Holcomb and educators are talking about when they say we need more youth, girls, women to enter computer science? Very likely yes. Then why wouldn't we start here instead of the meaty, scary, "Math-y" mystical Computer Science (wooooooohhhhhhh - ghostly far out sound).


Change the narrative about Computer Science

If we want to attract more girls to education and careers in tech, let's talk about what those careers in tech are. Let's ask what they find fascinating, what they like to do. In a recent keynote talk, I had middle school girls identify that they wanted to be an artist or an actor, but enjoyed coding. Is there a place in tech for these girls? ABSOLUTELY! Little Susie loves acting, there are opportunities to marry that passion with video design and digital storytelling. Tanya loves art? With an iPad and her imagination, she can design beautiful art and design apps and websites. Let's stop talking about computer science in big terms even code jedis don't use. If you use "computer science" then qualify what computer science means: cybersecurity, coding, UX, digital product development, technical project management (Scrum, Kanban), Smarthome installation, cloud jedi, entrepreneurship. Tell those you are speaking with WHAT COMPUTER SCIENCE IS, instead of using a fairly generic term that most people erroneously end up explaining as "coding."


The Revenge of the Nerds Stereotype

According to Samuel Bright, an analyst with Forrester Research, "[O]ne factor in lower IT career interest is the unfair perception of the IT career as confined to back-office programming and populated by geeks." He suggests that industry form speaker's bureaus to encourage interest in the field of IT. Great idea. INDUSTRY is the operative word. It's one thing for governmental educational bodies to tell K-12 to inculcate "computer science" into their curriculum. It's quite another to hear from industry that they will make speakers available to talk about the real real of tech.


"OVER THE PAST DECADE, THE PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS RECEIVING COMPUTER AND INFORMATION SCIENCES DEGREES WHO WERE BLACK, LATINA, AND NATIVE AMERICAN WOMEN FELL BY NEARLY 40 PERCENT." - Reboot Representation


When you can see us, You can be us!

When those speaker bureaus are formed, industry and organizations must include women who work in tech. According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, as reported by CIO.com, "[f]emale students who have visible, female role models in computer science careers and receive encouragement from parents and teachers can increase likelihood that they pursue additional computer sciences courses and degrees." This means more women, and in many cases women of color, need to be visible to girls in elementary school, middle school and high school. This means, of course, that tech associations, governmental educational institutions and higher ed need to bring WOMEN IN TECH TO THE TABLE when they craft policies, orders, legislation, communications and outreach strategies.


During my time at Ivy Tech, I heard fantastic strategies and plans to increase diversity in tech, but there was no diversity invited to provide insights and counsel in the design of a plan. I have great male friends, all colors and from all diasporas, committed to diversity. But it cannot be just these awesome gents presenting, talking and leading discussions. It simply cannot. If you want more girls and women to enter the tech ecosystem you need to invite women working in tech to the table. I define women working in tech (not the SE or M, but tech with the capital T) as those women: leading IT organizations, those Agile jedis leading projects or PMOs, CTOs, those who smash python or Swift, UX designers and leaders, sys admins, Cloud experts (yes, they exist), those leading cybersecurity functions or designing cyber strategies, leading infrastructure teams, Salesforce developers, game designers, technical writers and tech sales directors, and IoT leaders. Additionally, you should invite those women who lead organizations dedicated to improving the lives of girls: Girl Scouts, Girls Clubs, Girls Inc. etc. They talk with girls and understand what they ask for. Together, we can work to make a real difference.


Debunk Stereotypes

Black girls and women with braids aren't as smart or professional. Women with children want to spend more time at home than at work. Girls aren't as good as math as boys are. Girls should be seen and not heard. Girls in high school should do cosmetology just in case. Science is hard and boys are better at it. Girls should sing in choir and the boys can have a robotics team. These are all stereotypes that prevent girls from considering education and careers in tech. Let's have working sessions and define those stereotypes that continue to inhibit girls from being interested in tech and debunk the heck out of them! We can design a website that educators, parents, industry, employers can use to de-architect those myths that persist. And again, invite those women WORKING IN TECH to speak to them and show those girls why they can do this.

Computer Science, Software Development, Game Design and Animation, Cybersecurity, Cloud. It's All Good as long as...

This is how we should talk with girls and women about "computer science." It's all good as long as we qualify what computer science means and what those degrees AND credentials are that will open a door to an amazing tech career.

It's all good as long as we have industry speaking up, out and with educators about how to talk about the tech ecosystem. It's all good as long as you have women, A DIVERSITY OF WOMEN, at the table when you craft strategy to increase the number of women and girls in tech.

Let's do this !

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