We need equitable computer science education policies to close the gender gap in technology

In 1965, the Library of Congress got its first computer—so big that it had to be delivered one piece at a time. Back then, it most likely would have been women helping input data into a machine-readable format.

That’s because, in the ’60s and ’70s, many believed that women were on track to outnumber men in tech. In fact, the number of women studying data processing was growing faster than the number of men.

Today, that’s not the case. More than 50 years after that first computer was delivered, women make up less than 25 percent of the tech workforce and less than 20 percent of college students studying computer science. According to a new report from Girls Who Code, the recent wave of state legislation (33 states passing bills in 5 years) to bring more girls into computer science in K-12 hasn’t yet moved the needle. On average, girls make up only about 35 percent of students in K-12 CS courses.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s why last week, just down the hall from where that first computer lived in the Library of Congress, Girls Who Code hosted a panel of bipartisan female congressional leadership to address solutions to the gender gap in tech. Moreover, we are working together to develop legislation to require those receiving federal funding for computer science programs to track and report detailed demographic information about students taking computer science courses.

Right now, computer science policies are all about access—about putting more computer labs in more schools; however, that is simply not enough. Boys still make up the overwhelming majority of students in computer science, and girls are still not opting into these classes because they get signals—from pervasive stereotypes and personal experience—that they don’t belong in tech. We have experienced this ourselves, being told—both overtly and not—that tech isn’t for women.

We need more nuanced, equity-focused policies to put an end to the gender gap in tech -- policies like the one we are proposing, and like those outlined in the Girls Who Code Policy Agenda, which Washington state and Colorado both used as a model for recent girls-first computer science education bills.

The policies that will close the gender gap in K-12 computer science are not all about access. Rather, they are about equity—about holding ourselves responsible for bringing our girls into tech, for making the workforce of the future a diverse one.

If we hope to give girls a shot at entering and thriving in tech, we first need states to track and report data on the diversity of their computer science classrooms so that we have a clearer picture of the problem at hand. With this information, we can adapt our policies and programs to reach more students and guarantee that the pathway to tech is open to all. And we need schools to adapt curricula so that our girls—and boys—are learning about people who actually look like them. It’s important they have curricula that feature women like Katherine Johnson Grace Hopper and Ayanna Howard.

Computer science jobs are some of the highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs in the country. They make us competitive. They drive innovation. And not just in Silicon Valley—but in cities and towns across the country—from Nevada to New York, from Massachusetts to Montana. In order to realize the full potential of this industry, we need our girls to have a shot at entering, thriving, and building up this workforce. It’s on us to advocate for and pass the policies to make that possible.

Rosen is the junior senator from Nevada and formerly worked as a computer programmer and software developer. Reshma Saujani is CEO of Girls Who Code.