Georgetown University’s “GU Women Who Code” encourages women in computer science

The innovative program provides a "safe" way, participants say, to experiment with coding and gain confidence.

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Twice a month, more than 120 students, faculty, staff and alumni of Georgetown University gather on campus to learn how to code in Python, an open-source programming language widely used in scientific and numeric computing. In between these twice-monthly meetings, participants work on coding projects in smaller groups and get help and feedback from student mentors majoring in computer science.

Women meet to learn coding with GU Women Who Code. Image credit: Georgetown University

Women meet to learn coding with GU Women Who Code. Image credit: Georgetown University

What’s unusual about this group is that all of the participants – as well as the lecturers – are women.

GU Women Who Code,” which launched in January 2014, is setting out to help reverse what’s long been a reality: too few women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, especially in computer science.

“The statistics are not good,” said Lisa Singh, an associate professor of computer science who teaches the monthly lectures. “In 1985, 37 percent of undergraduate computer science majors were women. In 2010, only 14 percent were. Even if you include other majors that are similar to computer science, the total percentage of women is still below 20 percent. In terms of professional careers, only 25 percent of the jobs in computing occupations are filled by women. In this day and age, these are sad statistics.”

The dearth of women also means that women are missing out on future high-wage jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer-related occupations have a mean annual wage of over $80,000 and are projected to grow by nearly 18 percent by 2022.

Despite these opportunities, some women students say they felt intimidated by the prospect of learning how to code – until they joined GU Women Who Code.

“A lot of women are scared off from [computer science and coding] fields because those aren’t stereotypically fields women go into to study or to work, and they’re not always pushed towards those fields as much,” said Hannah Barnes, a rising senior majoring in International Economics.

“I never thought that I would learn how to code. Coding was too difficult, too unknown,” said Morgan Kennedy, a rising sophomore majoring in science, technology, and international affairs.

GU Women Who Code, she said, demystified coding. “[The program] gives every woman, no matter her level of technical experience, the opportunity to discover more about coding and computing,” she said. “I was given the right community to gain the experience and confidence to discover my love for coding.”

Remi Cohen, a senior majoring in computer science and one of the group’s student mentors, says the initiative gives women who’ve never been exposed to coding a risk-free way to try it out.

“I’ve seen in this how girls who have all different backgrounds are really interested in getting into coding,” she said. But because “they never took a coding class, … they didn’t know what it would be like and they didn’t know if they could do it, not because they weren’t interested.”

“I never thought that I would learn how to code.” – Morgan Kennedy, GU Women Who Code participant
According to Time’s Keith Wagstaff, fewer than 15,000 students took the AP computer science test in 2010 (compared to over 100,000 for AP statistics and nearly 200,000 for AP calculus). AP computer science is only offered at 10 percent of American high schools. Cohen was one of the fortunate few who had a chance to take AP computer science before joining GU Women Who Code.

“Since coding is completely different than writing an essay, completing labs, or most other academic disciplines, many people who have never tried it before don’t think to try it and do not want to take the risk to try coding and not be good at it.” GU Women Who Code, she said, provides “a non-confrontational and ‘safe’ environment for women to try, and potentially fail, but also possibly really succeed.”

This approach, it turns out, tapped an unmet need.

Professor Singh admitted that she was “completely surprised and a bit overwhelmed” by the positive response when the group first launched.

“We decided to have an information session to see how much interest there really was. We expected about 10 to 20 women to attend,” she said.

Ultimately, 65 women attended the meet-and-greet, and more than 100 joined the email list. By the end of the school year, the group grew to its current size of more than 120 participants. “It was an amazing turnout,” said Singh. “We learned that a real need and desire existed for women to learn about coding. These women did not necessarily want to become computer science majors. What they really wanted was to not get left behind during this time of technological innovation.”

The initiative also helped Georgetown earn a spot on the 2014 CIO 100 list, which recognizes organizations that implement technology innovations, alongside tech giants like Intel, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Siemens, and Verizon.

But Singh acknowledged that this is just the start.

“If we can get computer science to be as mainstream as biology, chemistry, and physics, then we will see some real progress,” she said. Added student Kennedy: “There is so much progress, opportunity, and excitement in these fields today. Even gaining a familiarity with coding allows an individual to engage the world in a different way.”

Phillip Burgoyne-Allen is a legislative assistant at an education law firm, a former intern for Third Way, and a recent graduate of Ohio State University. Follow: @PBA_DC

RELATED: Why are so few women in computing? 

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