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Girls Who Code CEO: Colleges 'Biggest Partners' To Tackle Computing Gender Gap

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Purdue University’s enrollment of women in computer science has risen 260-percent in the last five years. Still, the program’s current freshman class is comprised of 22-percent women, which is about on par with the national rate of women in the computing field.

Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani says Purdue and other universities have found ways to lessen that gender gap, such as securing female professors, or separating beginning classes based on experience.

“The guy who’s taken a bunch of classes doesn’t come in the first week and say ‘I know all of it!’ and intimidate other people,” Saujani says. “So, I think that you’ve seen that really work across different college campuses, of really building people’s confidence.”

Saujani says there’s still work to do. She says that includes fostering a sense of community in the major to reduce attrition rates.

Girls Who Code approaches that point by creating clubs of women interested in coding, and Saujani – who spoke at Purdue Tuesday -- says she’s encouraging colleges to create male ally groups.

Still, she says changes won’t be seen overnight.

“I think the future of tech is female,” she says. “I just think that we have to get there one girl, one coder at a time.”

Of all U.S. undergraduate degrees in computer and information sciences, women hold less than one-fifth of them.

Another issue, according to Saujani, is how computer science is marketed. She says computer science it’s often portrayed as boring or isolating, and if more girls are to be retained, the work has to be highlighted in different ways.

“So the way we teach Girls Who Code is really about project-based learning, telling girls that learning how to code is going to help them change the world and change a problem that they’re passionate about,” she says. “That it’s not about regurgitating computing languages -- that it’s about problem-solving and computational thinking. And so, I think that the images that we show our girls are not necessarily appealing and that has to change.”

Saujani also points to the importance of role models such as Katherine Johnson, whose work with NASA was spotlighted in the film Hidden Figures.