Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Turning the Ship Around

I hope many of you caught this Op-ED in the New York Times last weekend:
The piece discussed both the extreme gender imbalance in computer science – just 0.4% of women entering college expect to major in that area – and several promising initiatives to interest girls in coding – for example via Minecraft. It is perhaps telling that the author, Nitasha Tiku, is the child of Indian – it seems Bengali -- immigrants. When I was in San Francisco earlier this year a librarian who had grown up in Gurjarat – another state in India – commented on the gender imbalance in her homeland. There, it is the men who sit in the front of shops and chat with customers, while the women are trained to understand numbers and keep the books. In other words, our ridiculous imbalance in math and computer science is cultural, learned, taught, reinforced, assumed – but in no sense necessary. Indeed one of the bright spots in Tiku’s piece was mention of BlackGirlsCode –a project whose focus is self-evident.
                I do wonder – and invite your thoughts – on how our world got set up this way. Math and indeed coding should be as neutral as possible – you are not rewarded for having country club parents but for your own interest, skill, creativity, and diligence. Could it be that we so train girls to be social – to be alert to transactions with others (like the Gurjarati men at the front of the shops) that to turn to what may seem abstract and impersonal might be viewed as a betrayal, an abandonment of friends and family?
                I bring this to your attention because I think libraries, parents, teachers have a key role to play – and it is one we do not often discuss. Step one is self-questioning – is your library, classroom, home welcoming for young people who may prefer numbers or coding to words or novels? If you think it is, what have you done to feature coding and computer science? If you have gaming at your library, have you reached out to girls to join in, to take the lead, to take part in the fun?  If you are looking for good Common Core debates, what about: is computer science just for males? Why? Have a debate and let students research the issue and take positions. What about a reverse Big Bang theory skit, in which a set of nerdy brilliant female grade students meet regularly – with one hot guy dropping by.
                We have to recognize the barriers, the obstructions, we may – even unconsciously, inadvertently – put between girls’ potential interests and the opportunity to explore them. Indeed I notice that with all of the discussion this year about the lack of diversity in kids and YA literature, the least attention has been paid to math, science, and I have not seen any mention of computer science. So even as we question ourselves about our bias and blindness, we are still talking about a very limited subset of books – in other words, being blind and biased.
                Step two may take some work from us – I, for example, know nothing about coding. My 9-year old son is beginning to learn a bit a school, but to help him I’d have to study. As more schools treat coding as a language all children should learn, we will have to play catch up, so we can be helpful.

                What is Step three – you tell me. After we clear away our obstructions and learn enough to be useful, what next? How can we bring girls, of ever background, into the language of their time: coding? 


  1. I'm surprised at these recent statistics. I was a computer programmer, systems analyst and consultant from 1980 to 1993. At that time, there were quite a few females in the business. I got interested in the field after taking a programming course in high school. Goodness how things have changed.

  2. The stat comes from the Times piece so I can't confirm it, but your experience suggests at a minimum that we can do better, and that having the chance to program early is one key to getting girls involved.