A New Approach to Getting Girls Interested in Engineering and Computer Science

I’m sure you’ve noticed that computer sciences and engineering have long been a male- dominated field. Though we’ve made strides in the past decade or so toward getting more young girls interested in these topics, we still find that traditional norms are being reinforced at a very basic level and that boys are much more apt to gravitate toward these fields than girls. One of my hot buttons has always been figuring out why this is happening and then developing some different methods that will be more effective at evening out the ratios.

Why Are Boys More Interested in Computer Sciences Than Girls?

One of the main reasons I see boys gravitating toward this field while their female counterparts look at other subjects is because of the inherent connections between computer sciences and male interests. What do you think of when you hear ‘computer sciences’? If you’re like most people, images of robots and video games pop into your
head. And who is more interested in robots and video games? Boys, of course! Because this field naturally dovetails with many ‘boy’ interests, it’s obvious why girls sometimes turn up their noses and cultivate interests elsewhere. Those girls who do enjoy traditionally ‘boy’ interests usually end up caving to peer pressure or nudges from their parents as they get older and leave these hobbies (and their interest in the technology behind it) in the past in favor of more socially acceptable (and ‘gender appropriate’) subjects.

Even when you see a girl become and stay interested in the field, you often find that she gets disheartened when she realizes she’s one of the only females enrolled in a program to learn more. Our programming and gaming summer courses for those 8 years and older tend to have 18 or 19 boys and only a couple of girls. Many times, we’ll
have girls drop out of the course once they realize that they are in a classroom full of boys and that all of their friends have chosen other fields to pursue. It’s disheartening to say the least! Just when we think we have success by having a handful of girls join one of our courses, we experience the disappointment of them feeling isolated in the class or dropping it (and their interest in computer sciences) altogether.

So What’s the Answer?

Getting girls interested in computer sciences is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Do you make a push to get them to register, only to find them dropping the courses when they realize they are in the minority of those enrolled? We need more girls registered to encourage other girls to join, but how do you get the ball rolling? It’s been a question that has plagued many of us in the role of developing STEM courses that are aimed at
attracting female participants.

I believe the answer lies not in convincing girls they should be interested in traditional ‘boy’ subjects, but instead showing them the natural connection between computer sciences and ‘girl’ subjects they are already interested in. With the rise of virtual fashion design and wearable technology, I believe we now have a natural fit that will capitalize on what girls are already interested in—but with a computer science twist.

Once we realized the opportunity on the horizon in 2014, our female staff member Peggy Lee spearheaded a new initiative called Made by Girls with a girls-only programming course offered at our Stanford University location. With the right marketing and outreach, we saw the number of girls taking programming courses at DMA increase
dramatically. We were not the first to recognize that making classes exclusive to girls would have a big impact. There have been initiatives similar to this around the world, and almost all of them have had some level of success.  However, our next evolution of this concept takes an even more unique approach by combining the girls-only idea with the previously mentioned natural connection between computer sciences and fashion.

Our “Wearable Tech and Fashion Design” course represents the full realization of our belief that girls must feel a natural inclination toward computer sciences if they are truly going to embrace the field. Let’s be honest—girls love to shop, they love clothes, and they love to design jewelry. So why not show them how innovative the field has become with hands-on design and crafting techniques that can create virtual clothing and digital patterns? And while we’re at it, why not show them how attractive and trendy wearable tech can be—and how they can program that tech to perform some pretty cool tasks in the process?

My belief is that pushing girls into a field they don’t naturally feel an inclination toward will never be successful. Though they may find they are good at programming or that they enjoy some aspects of the field, many will never seek out computer sciences or truly feel a passion for it. If we instead alter the perception of computer sciences to show them how they can enhance what they already have an interest in, we can make computer sciences attractive to a whole new generation of girls.

I hope you’ll join me in spreading the word about our new “Wearable Tech and Fashion Design” course to all the potential young girl programmers in your life. With your help, we can show a new generation of girls that programming is not only cool, but it’s also fashionable!