Tomorrow's Economy

Equality can help unlock a new wave of innovation in our economy

11 October 2016

Governments must not only improve access to education, but help shift perceptions of what our next generation of great innovators will look like

Reshma Saujani

When we talk about progress in the digital age we must be mindful of access. One of the reasons the digital transformation is incomplete is because it has left out half the population. Tech jobs are some of the fastest growing, highest paying jobs and women are being left behind. By 2020, there will be 1.4m jobs open in computing in the US and, at the current rate, women are on track to fill just three per cent of them. This matters not just for equity but for innovation. We know diverse teams build better products and improve our capacity to solve problems in both the public and private sector.

At Girls Who Code, we see how girls are thinking about these problems and solving them. Take Maya and Lucy, two middle school girls in our ‘clubs’ programme, who after hearing about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, built a website called, ‘Get The Lead Out’ to educate middle and high school students about lead poisoning and how to prevent it. Or Cora, a summer immersion programme student who developed a plan to use an algorithm to detect the difference between benign and malignant tumours after her dad was diagnosed with cancer. Or Jazmine, who built an app called Wacky Words to help girls learn SAT words so they do not have to pay for expensive books or tutors. Our girls are using the technical skills they developed in our programmes to solve problems in their communities, their country and in their world.

One of the biggest threats to our innovation economy is not educational access for all but access for those who need it most. While girls’ interest in computer science declines over time, the greatest drop-off happens in middle and high school. We call this the ‘interest cliff’ – the period of time in which girls’ interest in the field declines dramatically at the same time boys’ interest grows. If girls do not take computer science in middle and high school, it is very unlikely they will major in it in college or go on to a career in tech. To get girls into the innovation pipeline, we need to intervene at this critical time in middle school and high school. The way to do this is not through quick interventions that just expose girls to code, but through sustained interventions tailored to girls specifically, particularly those from underserved communities.

We also know it’s not just about access; symbols and role models matter in getting girls interested in tech. Today, the perception of the tech industry is of a boys’ club, but some of the first pioneers of computer science were actually women. We went from near gender parity in computer science in the 1980s to now less than 18 per cent of women graduating with a degree in computer science. The shift cannot be explained through lack of educational opportunity alone but through culture. So let’s ask ourselves: how do we change culture? Here’s one idea. Megan Smith as CTO of the United States is a powerful signal and role model for girls. As part of her work, she has lifted up and promoted the contributions of women to computer science. Seeing more governments promote women into their highest technical roles can have an important impact on shifting perceptions of what a programmer does and looks like.

We need the public and private sectors to come together to dramatically expand access to computer science and bring in the millions of girls that have been left behind. Only then will our digital transformation start to be complete.


Photo credit: MAxPixel CC BY 2.0