Encouraging Daughters to Pursue Computer Science

A personal opinion about how parents should encourage their children, especially daughters, to pursue a career in computer science

The following are are my thoughts entirely and do not represent that of my employer.

Many companies in Silicon Valley recognize this problem and have implemented programs that encourage more females to apply. Despite the proliferation of recent efforts, we still do not receive enough female applicants. Why is this the case?

The STEM Educational Crisis

The most immediate connection is the educational pipeline. Simply put, the current U.S. educational system is not preparing enough students to be in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, and this is fueling the hiring gap in many U.S. companies. Companies in Silicon Valley cannot hire U.S. college and high school students in computer science fast enough, and as a result have been lobbying lawmakers to relax visa requirements so that they can employ engineers from other countries.

Things are more bleak when we we look at gender discrepancies in computer science. Only 12% of computer science graduates in 2011 are female. This is down from 37% in 1987. Computer Science is the only STEM field that has seen a decrease in female college graduates in the last decade.

In order to begin to address this disparity, teachers and counselors should encourage high school students, especially females, to pursue STEM majors. While females comprise 56% of AP test takers, only 19% of the takers of the Computer Science AP exams are women. Educators need to ensure that female students are just as supported to pursue STEM fields as their male counterparts, perhaps with even more prodding than usual. I understand that it can be difficult go against conventional practices, but we owe it to our future generations of daughters to give them these educational opportunities. Our current and future scientific and technological challenges are complex and many. We can no longer afford to ignore harnessing the intellectual potential of half of the world’s population.

Promoting STEM at home

Another critical ingredient in the promotion of more girls and women in STEM fields resides in the home — with the parents and family members. Parents in particular have a major impact on their children’s education and future prosperity. Not every parent will have the capacity to heavily invest in their children’s education, and not every daughter will want to enter the STEM field. But I believe that it is in every parent’s best interest to at least encourage their daughters to explore this field: from encouraging them to join math/science clubs at school, participate in science and tech fairs, to introducing them to entertainment with strong female leads in STEM, or even just decorating their rooms with STEM-related posters (especially female STEM role models).

I can clearly trace my passion for computer science to the time when my father taught me Turbo Pascal when I was in high school. In the 1980s, when my father was taking an evening adult class in the emerging field of programming to retrain himself, he decided to teach me whatever he learned each week. I still remember the black text book with the Corvette car on its cover that I was reading as a teenager. I began to develop my own little programs and games, and my interest never waned since. However, my dad did not include my sister in those sessions, so I can’t say whether she would have pursued a career in computer science had he taught her as well. I guess we’ll never find out, which is exactly the point I am making.

I am calling on parents to actively nurture an environment where daughters are not only encouraged to pursue careers in STEM, but in particular computer science. You do not have to be a programmer yourself to encourage your daughters to learn programming. There are many excellent resources for any parent/teacher/mentor to introduce any child (as young as 4 years of age) to the wonderful world of programming. https://code.org/learn is one such resource; these tutorials are cleverly disguised as fun games that teach you and your student computational thinking. While these tutorials are often presented in so-called Hour of Code events at middle or high schools, you do not have to wait for such events. Simply sit down with your daughter(s) this weekend and solve these puzzles together. You’ll have a chance to learn about programming fundamentals yourself. Research has shown that the earlier you expose girls to programming, the more likely they are to commit to a career in it.

Similarly, the Made with Code website provides lots of videos, resources and edutainment-style projects that introduce girls to coding. Made with Code also has a YouTube playlist that portraits a list of female coders and the diverse fields in which they work.

When it comes to actually signing up your daughters to STEM events, AP classes, and other programs, do the extra step in finding peers and other friends who might want to join them on the adventure. It can be difficult to “be the only girl in class,” so by recruiting her female friends (or convincing their parents), you’ll set them up with a much better support system, and they are more likely to follow through with the program.

The male-dominated culture of software engineering

It is impossible to address the gender inequalities in the software engineering field without discussing the culture of sexism that exists once your daughters enter the workforce. I am not talking about the blatant sexism that is cheesily ridiculed in HR training. I am talking about the unconscious bias that many of us unintentionally commit all the time. I know, because I’ve committed many of them myself, and have been called out for them. I’ll give you an example. When someone asks me for my go-to programming joke, I used to tell them of John, a software engineer. John tells his coworkers that he and his wife are expecting a child at the end of March. When John’s co-workers ask him, “is it a boy or a girl?”, John replies with “Yes.”

Until recently, it didn’t occur to me that by telling the joke that way, I’ve been perpetuating a stereotype of what a software engineer should look like. From now on, I will tell the joke as the tale of Quynh, a software engineer, who is pregnant. The joke works the same way, and is in fact much shorter to tell.

There is a long list of micro-aggressions that female engineers have to deal with: being mistaken as Product Managers in meetings, being ignored when voicing preferences for gender-neutral team outings, being told in tech interviews that “they don’t look like software engineers,” being referred to as a “diversity hire,” being clumped into “you guys,” or being asked what team their boyfriend/husband is working on at holiday parties. It’s a rather long list of small things that do add up to a culture that can be avoided if we are only more cognizant of it.

Recognizing these pitfalls is a first step I’ve taken. I’ve also started referring to potential headcounts always as “he or she” (“once we fill the position of the 3rd engineer soon, I’ll have him or her work on component X”). In my technical design documents, I use “she” to refer to the user or the engineer to counter the default assumption of a male software engineer. These are just a few changes that the engineering community as a whole should recognize and counteract.

Conclusion

It’s hard to believe that computer science was once a female-dominated world. Somehow, this important field of study, which creates products that soon will affect the lives of the next 6 billion people, has lost a crucial element of its talent pool. U.S. companies are in dire need to hire female engineers, but they are unable to do so because of the lack of support and encouragement for young women to enter the field. Having a well-represented workforce will lead to a much more diverse set of minds and ideas, better decision-making and products, and a more positive impact on every level of software engineering. It makes political, corporate, pedagogical, and financial sense. What’s missing is for this to be common sense.

Minh T. Nguyen

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