Girls First: Focusing on Youth to Close Gender and Racial Gaps

This blog post is a continuation of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can,” which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.

Girls First: Focusing on Youth to Close Gender and Racial Gaps

“Our aspirations to be a nation of equity and opportunity will be impossible to achieve if we do not intentionally and aggressively act to ensure that all young people are on a path to a productive adulthood.” -Patrick McCarthy, Closing the Gaps: Together We Can

At Girls Who Code we sometimes use the phrase—”Girls First”— to describe our efforts to keep our culture, programs, and systems, focused on the needs, outcomes, and experiences of the bright and inspiring young women who participate in our afterschool Clubs and Summer Immersion programs.

One way that Girls Who Code works to explicitly and intentionally keep girls top of mind is through our educational programs and products. They impart the capabilities, career, and community that girls need to successfully pursue 21st century opportunities. Along with our focus on bravery, computational thinking and sisterhood, we see these three Cs as central components to work. They are the unique identifiers that we leverage to propel girls to explore new ideas and address the vexing problems around them.

At Girls Who Code, our goal is to close the gender and opportunity gaps that stop historically underrepresented groups from succeeding in computer science fields. We intentionally and aggressively focus on the issues facing young women and act to educate, inspire, and equip them with the computational thinking skills necessary to succeed in today’s world.

In a recent study we released with Accenture, we discovered that the share of women in the computing workforce has declined from 37% in 1995 to 24% today. Without targeted interventions this yawning gap will only continue to grow in the years to come. We’re also seeing that race, geography, and socioeconomic status determine access to CS education. We know low-income students have limited access to AP Computer Science classes compared to high-income students. And Black and Native American students have the least access to CS education, with students in rural areas not far behind.

Over the past five years, our Summer Immersion and Clubs programs have taught over 30,000 girls. That’s three times the total number of women who graduate with CS degrees in 2015 alone. For me as an artist and designer, closing the gender and opportunity gap is not only about equity, but also about the very nature and process of innovation. Now more than ever, who we look to as inventors, and what they seek to create or change has untold impacts on who and what succeeds or fails, in this world.

Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher’s, Unlocking the Clubhouse, is one of the books that I’ve read and returned to since starting at Girls Who Code. It’s research is inspired by the history of design flaws and detrimental impacts caused by innovations built around one culture’s assumptions and biases. As Margolis and Fisher demonstrate, history shows us that innovations designed without all of our experiences in mind can do more damage than good. The advent of the heart valve (see pg. 14) is one salient example. This technology saves hundreds of lives each day, but the original valves were designed to fit the width and girth of a male heart – not a woman’s – because the team of engineers who designed them was mostly male.

This is one example of the deleterious effects of innovation without diversity. Innovations built around only one group’s model and assumptions risk fulfilling only that one group’s needs and desires. Historically underrepresented groups must be part of the design teams who are reshaping the world, if the reshaped world is to represent our problems and their complexities with fidelity.

For one, we believe that each girl sees the world differently and that each person brings her own unique perspective and experience to their work. We take an intersectional approach to make sure girls have the capabilities, community and career mindsets that will serve them well in the future workforce. Most importantly, we know that the girls entering our programs come from different backgrounds and we strive to build an educational experience that meets them where they are.

While Girls Who Code programs seek to disrupt the way CS has been taught and presented to date, we tie our pedagogical practice to the real world skills and processes that girls need to be successful. We do this through a focus on problem-solving, teamwork, and interest-based projects. We ask girls to bring their experiences and interests to the table—and apply analysis, critical thinking, and their newfound knowledge of code to what interests them most. This personal relevancy is crucial for sparking and sustaining girls’ interest in computer science. Most importantly, it ensures that our work and products reflect the diversity of the girls that we serve.

Another aspect of our approach is creating new ideas of who a computer scientist is and what she does. Through our Women in Tech Spotlights, our Clubs introduce girls to new role models and highlight diverse contributors to the history and field of computer science.

And finally, we believe girls need community and support from their peers and adults. We ensure that girls are supported by caring and adaptive adults who see the potential in all girls and have the cultural competence and skill to connect in ways that are relevant to them.

We also stress this focus on community improvement and the girls-first value in our commitment to new products. One initiative our Innovation Team recently developed was a mobile app called Girls Who Code Loop. The app encourages students and alumni to support one another based on their interests, location, or Girls Who Code program affiliation. These interest-based “loops” helps girls to stay connected and find common ground across different backgrounds, neighborhoods, and interests.

We know from our research that girls really wanted a space to air frustrations, make new friends and ask questions in an environment of like-minded girls. One of the features I’m most proud of is the “Raise your hand feature,” which allows any girl from anywhere in the country to pose a question to the community and seek help. In designing this particular feature we baked in our value of sisterhood and mutual support into the design of the application.

We measure success by an intention to major/minor in CS. Our most recent alumni survey results indicate 93% of our Summer Immersion Program alumni and 65% of our Clubs alumni say that they want to go on to pursue a degree in Computer Science in college. In our qualitative assessments, we see that many attribute this academic path to their experience with Girls Who Code programs.

At Girls Who Code, we believe that girls have a vital and unique role to play in the future of this country. We work to aggressively and intentionally arm our students with the capability, self-confidence, and sisterhood to question assumptions and think critically about the impacts of what they code and the difference it will make in the world.


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