Did you know some of the first programmers were incredible women like Admiral Grace Hopper, who programmed some of the first computers during World War II, and Margaret Hamilton, who programmed onboard flight software for the Apollo 11 mission? Yet, even with technology becoming more and more accessible to Americans and students around the world, the percentage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is currently less than 20 percent—even less than during the mid-1900s, when the proportion of women in computer science was around 37 percent.
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This is a troubling statistic. We live in a world that’s rapidly changing, at a pace that’s only increasing, and computer science drives much of the change. It seems that we hear of new innovations that show off the power of computer science almost daily, from the latest self-driving cars to new 3D-printed prosthetic arms.
Believe it or not, even the recent Disney movie, “Big Hero 6,” puts real-life inventions by researchers and computer programmers into prime focus. Those “microbots” that can swarm together to build intricate structures and designs featured in the movie are not solely a stretch of the imagination. Engineers at MIT have been developing similar robots that work together called M-blocks. The same goes for the health care robot that can detect diseases. Precise surgical robots like the Da Vinci robots operate on humans to rid them of tumors and other ailments every day. Cliché as it sounds, it may be challenging for anyone to argue that technology isn’t the future.
In order to discuss how young girls and women can become a stronger and more visible driving force in computer science, we need to first take a look at why that’s been difficult. One of the many reasons, I believe, is the intimidation factor, especially for younger girls. With fewer women in these fields, it’s more difficult for girls to seek mentors and see their own potential success in someone else. In contrast, young boys and men have Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and other household names to show them that, “Yes, you can be the next great engineer” and yes, they can gravitate toward STEM-related careers.
Another significant problem is that of microaggressions, or comments that may seem innocuous but in fact are offensive and harmful to someone’s self-esteem and morale. For example, when my friend was studying at her engineering college, fellow students revealed that they thought she was a visitor on campus because she didn’t “look like a programmer.”
After another friend signed on to a job, she began feeling like she wasn’t being recognized as a capable engineer, suspecting that she was offered her position so that the company could boost their diversity numbers. Of course, there’s also the labeling of women in leadership roles as “bossy,” “pushy,” or “obnoxious”—even if their management styles are essentially the same as that of their male counterparts.
To make matters worse, when this type of language is called out, the points are often trivialized as women being too “sensitive” or “seeing an issue where there isn’t one.”
Coding and computer science is so integral to everyone’s lives, so why can’t girls be the ones creating and programming as well? There’s a lot we can do to that end. All of us—females and males alike—have a responsibility to continue having conversations so that microaggressions are not the norm or accepted—and to validate related concerns when they’re voiced.
That change will be gradual, but in the meantime, we can highlight the wonderfully brilliant women who are already in the field, to guide girls to role models who prove that being a leading engineer, programmer, researcher, or scientist is not only possible but also worth it.
If you’re someone thinking about getting involved, don’t hesitate—try out a STEM class, join an after-school club, reach out to a computer engineer for a chat, and apply for STEM internships.
If we can create cars that used to only exist in sci-fi movies, we can surely change the how society views STEM careers for women and, in the process, make equality a reality.