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Why Teaching Girls to Code Is Not the (Only) Answer

We must do more to fill the gender gap in tech leadership and venture capital.
(Photo: welcomia/Shutterstock)

(Photo: welcomia/Shutterstock)

It was just two years ago that the United Nations declared October 11th the International Day of the Girl. Among the most popular new initiatives to help girls build the skills they need are the efforts to teach computer coding. We’ve heard the mantra again and again: Not enough girls choose STEM fields, not enough girls are brave enough and prepared enough to break the tech boys’ club wide open. But is the obvious solution—teaching girls to code, now an idea on fire—enough to solve the gender gap in tech, especially at the top? Not really.

The most recent movement to encourage girls to code started about five years ago with important goals, namely, filling a future labor shortage and minimizing the gender gap. The Department of Labor projects that, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. Yet universities are expected to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of these jobs. Additionally, there is a significant gender gap in computer science starting in school and continuing into the workforce. Women today represent 12 percent of all computer science college graduates. According to Google’s latest report, for example, women make up only 17 percent of the company’s tech-focused departments and 30 percent of the overall workforce of 53,600 employees.

Everyone is getting on board. Supporters of teaching girls to code have hailed from every sector and have offered a range of programs. They include new non-profits such as CodeNow and Rails Girls, which raise awareness and offer a taste of basic coding to schoolgirls. In 2014, Google put up $50 million to support various programs to reach millions of girls while partnering with the Girl Scouts, Girls Inc., Chelsea Clinton, Mindy Kaling, the MIT Media Lab, TechCrunch, Seventeen, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and others. They are not alone, with other major corporations such as Microsoft, Bloomberg, and Facebook following suit by investing in mentorship and instructional coding programs for girls.

Is coding a language that is good to know but will not necessarily lead to equity in the workplace, especially at the top?

Yes, girls should code. But even if all girls learned this skill, it wouldn’t be enough to fill the gender gap in tech leadership. Girls, who grew into women, have long been able to code. The field of programming was primarily a women's field until as late as the 1960s. In fact, a team of women, led by Jean Jennings Bartik and Grace Hopper, created programs for the first commercial computers, including the first alpha numeric programming language. Not many people know that today. How could they? Bartik and Hopper weren't even recognized for their achievement then. Though symbolic, they weren’t invited to the celebratory dinner, nor were women even identified in any of the photos from the time.

Even if we get as many women coding as men, it wouldn’t guarantee spots in major decision-making positions, nor would it guarantee pay equity. We see this in other industries and professions. Women now make up the majority of college graduates and are approximately half of medical and law school graduates, for example. But despite their skills sets, only 21 percent of partners at law firms are women and only about 10 to 20 percent of medical school deans, full professors, organized medicine leadership, and editors of powerful medical journals are women.

The movement to teach girls to code reminds me of the dawn of the Katherine Gibbs School at the early 20th century. It taught women how to use the technology of the day: telephones, typewriters, comptometers, and Dictaphones—“setting them up for success,” the schools called it. Is coding the same thing as typing in the 21st century? Is coding a language that is good to know but will not necessarily lead to equity in the workplace, especially at the top? Are we setting up girls to become the worker bees of the 21st century, never to reach the highest ranks?

Some will say that having coding skills will guarantee that these girls, when they turn into women, will always be able to have a good, stable job in the future economy. While that might be true, is that enough? It is worthy, certainly, but we can’t stop there. We must strive for equity across the board, which will take girls learning other skills such as entrepreneurship and finance, perhaps to start their own companies and venture capital firms; it will also require a change in the system of recognition and promotion as highlighted by many studies.

Teaching girls to code is a good thing, but not knowing how to code is not the main reason girls—our future women—are not becoming tech CEOs, venture capitalists, and/or equally paid employees. The 21st-century movement to teach girls to code requires a new, more holistic approach.

So today, when we stop and celebrate the Day of the Girl, let’s remember that, while teaching girls to code is now perceived as our silver bullet to solve the current gender gap and to fill the future labor gap in tech, it is just the beginning.