Google has promised to do all it can to recruit more women into Silicon Valley, and now the company is putting its money where its PR is. On Thursday, it launched a $50 million initiative to teach young girls how to code.
Just last month, Google announced that only 17% of its tech employees are women. The gender disparity is a dire issue for all tech companies. There will be 1.4 million computing jobs available in 2020, but only 400,000 computer-science graduates from U.S. universities to fill them. Part of the problem is that only 12% of computer-science degrees go to women, and in order for Silicon Valley to survive and thrive, it must be able to recruit more engineering talent from the other 50% of the population.
“Coding is a fundamental skill that’s going to be a part of almost everything,” Megan Smith, VP of Google[x], tells TIME. “So for kids to really at a minimum just be able to express themselves in code and make things and feel confident, that would be important — no matter what their career is.”
Google has invested a lot more than just money in the project. The company conducted research to determine why girls are opting out of learning how to code: the number of female computer-science majors has dropped dramatically since 1984, when 37% of computer-science degrees went to women. How do we get them back into computer-science classrooms?
Google found that most girls decide before they even enter college whether they want to learn to code — so the tech world must win them over them at a young age. They also found that there were four major factors that determined whether girls opted into computer science: social encouragement, self-perception, academic exposure and career perception.
To give parents the resources to encourage young girls, Google teamed up with all-girls coding groups and camps across the country to create a national database of programs. Parents can enter their ZIP code and find the one closest to them. The study found that social encouragement matters more to girls than to boys and that any exposure to coding was better than none at all, so kids who cannot take a computer-science class in school would gain something from attending an after-school program, camp or even playing a computer game at home.
Increased exposure will build up girls’ confidence in their coding abilities. In a word-association part of the study, girls who were unfamiliar with computer science identified it most with the wordsboring, technology, hard and difficult, while those who had had some exposure to computer science used the words technology,programming, future and fun.
“One of the most important things that we can do is get girls into our computer-science classrooms across our country, including elementary school,” says Smith. “Vietnam is teaching computer science from second grade. Malaysia, China — we’re seeing the U.K. starting to do this at an elementary level. So the best thing to do would be to get them into our schools.”
To introduce girls to coding before they even attend programs or camps, Google created 13 different coding projects for girls on the site. One allows girls to code their own bracelet in five to 10 minutes; the bracelet is then 3-D printed and sent to them in the mail. The creators hope that the fun projects, designed for beginners, will connect to interests that girls already have.