Decoding Our Fear of Computer Science: Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code


By Re

Valiant author and founder of the national nonprofit Girls Who Code established in 2012, Reshma Saujani advocates for a model of female leadership based on exhaustive education and mentorship, deeming our inherent aversion to risk and failure as women’s final impediment in the computer sciences.

“It’s the one industry where we’ve actually seen a decline in women,” Saujani said, as women today represent just 12 percent of all computer science graduates—a significant lapse from the 37 percent in 1984. “There is something that is happening culturally, to make women feel like it’s just not for them.”

While there is little explanation for this decline thus far, Saujani said, “We kind of anecdotally know that when girls think of computer sciences they think of a guy in a lab coat typing at his computer—and that’s not exciting to them. Secondly, culturally—I can walk into Forever 21 and buy a t-shirt that says ‘Math Sucks.’”

There exists an illusion that math is simply too hard, Saujani believes, and because we live in a society that’s afraid of failure, she emphasized, “We have to get [girls] in the practice of failing, and taking risks, and trying and trying again.”

Saujani is, however, mindful that women in both the legal and medical fields were also once male-centric prior to establishing iconic female lawyers and doctors—she had an idol to whom she looked up. “In my family, everybody is kind of in the sciences. But I watched this movie, The Accused, and Kelly McGillis is this amazing lawyer and I said, I want to do that,” she said.

Similarly, she said, “You didn’t used to have the majority of doctors…that were women. So we made Grey’s Anatomy; we had Ally McBeal. We put cultural icons on television so girls could say, you know what, that looks like me. I really believe that we cannot be what we cannot see…So we have to have those types of role models, and you have to put those role models out there.”

And it is critical that these role models represent ambition, Saujani argues. “Women are not celebrated for being ambitious. We have caricatures of like in the Devil Wears Prada, where these ambitious women—the only path for them is destruction,” she explained. “Women then hide their ambition, because they want to be liked. Instead of hiding our ambition, we need to own our ambition, and to celebrate our ambition, and once we do, we’ll change that caricature. It will never be a bad thing to be ambitious, if so many women are raising their hands saying, I’m ambitious.”

Paramount to ensuring the economic prosperity of women, and to providing them with the modern tools for innovation, aptitude and resources to fuel social change, Girls Who Code, is a national non-profit organization that educates and inspires young women to pursue both academic and career opportunities in the computer sciences.

According to Girls Who Code, although women make up half of the U.S. workforce, they hold just 25 percent of the jobs in technical or computing fields. In a room full of 25 engineers, only three will be women, perhaps because while 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, just 12 percent are computer science degrees.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. To reach gender parity by then, women must fill half of the anticipated positions, or 700,000 computing jobs. According to Girls Who Code, anecdotal data tells us that an average of 30 percent of those students with exposure to computer science will continue in the field, which means that 4.6 million girls must acquire a computer science education.

Unfortunately, at the current rate of education, U.S. universities are expected to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of these jobs. And further, Saujani added that the dropout rate of computer science degrees is astronomically high. “We have to create spaces and places where we continue to nurture these women and create sisterhood,” she argued.

Girls Who Code has thus set out to school 25 percent of the indispensable young women needed to achieve gender parity. “I took 20 girls the first year and put them in a technology company,” Saujani explained. “We taught them how to code a website, how to build a mobile app, how to have a conversation with an engineer about their business plan. Our first year was really successful,” she said of the organization that grew from one program to eight in Detroit, New York and San Francisco, and partnered with companies including Twitter, eBay, Intel, AT&T, GE, Goldman Sachs, Cornell Tech, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and IAC.

With eight weeks of over 300 hours of exhaustive coaching in robotics, web design, algorithms and mobile development in conjunction with engaging, career-focused mentorship by more than 50 demos, workshops and presentations by the industry’s top female entrepreneurs and engineers, the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program has developed an innovative model of computer science education.

In its inaugural program, Girls Who Code participants learned to program robots in Python, mastered web design and UX/UI, and built and developed both web and mobile applications, including those designed to help handicapped New Yorkers navigate the city’s streets and subways, a Twitter-based application to start book clubs with peers across the country and a web application to provide ESL students with distance learning and peer-to-peer mentorship.

Following the completion of the program, all participants reported that they were definitely or more likely to major in computer science, compared to the national average of 0.3 percent, according to Girls Who Code. They also returned to their respective schools packaging the program’s curriculum for replication with Girls Who Code Clubs, recruiting others, teaching semester-long courses and petitioning principals and teachers to offer computer science courses.

“For some girls, eight weeks is a pretty big commitment,” Saujani said. “So we wanted to make sure we were offering other products to get as many girls as we possibly could interested in computer science education.”

Saujani is confident that this generation of emerging professional women will revolutionize the computer sciences. “You’re seeing more female founders; you’re seeing more female entrepreneurs; you’re seeing more women who are getting their coding education—I think that we just have to continue along the pipeline,” she said. “One of the things I love about [this] generation is that [girls] want to do everything [and] think [they] can do anything. That’s awesome.”

In fact, the biggest problem with which she believes they now struggle is merely getting caught up in paralysis. She said women now ask, “What is it that I should I do because there are so many things I want to do and how do I focus on one thing?” But, “careers are long,” she said. “In my life I’ve been a lawyer, a marketer, a political candidate, a CEO of a non-profit. I’ve had so many different careers in my 38 years, but it’s okay to pick and choose and to pick again.”

In 2010, Saujani became the first Indian American woman to run a spirited campaign for U.S. Congress, in an effort to disrupt both politics and technology and create positive change, promoting policies that would spur innovation and job creation.

Saujani’s political and activist career has provided her with the credibility to write her groundbreaking book, “Women Who Don’t Wait in Line,” in which she urges women to boldly chart their own courses, forging new paths and being unapologetically ambitious—both personally and professionally.

She said of her political career, “We’ve always focused on what’s the role of men and the lack of gender parity? What’s the role of sexism? And I think we have to start asking ourselves, what’s our role? How do we as women take more risks? How do we as women build a sisterhood? How do we as women support one another? I think that’s in politics; the majority of voters are women but often women don’t vote for women…Women are the majority of middle managers. We can start hiring more women. We can give them more opportunities. Let’s look at the power that we have in our numbers, in our strengths and in our resources, and start creating change on our own.”

Saujani is a graduate of the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Yale Law School. She has recently been named one of Forbes’ “Most Powerful Women Changing the World,” Fast Company‘s “100 Most Creative People,” Ad Age‘s “Creativity 50,” Business Insider‘s “50 Women Who Are Changing the World,” City & State‘s “Rising Stars” and an AOL/PBS “Next MAKER.”

Below is a highlight from my interview with Reshma Saujani:

Re: I know that Forbes named you one of the most powerful women changing the world, among many other titles. What do these all mean to you?

Reshma Saujani: Gosh, no one has ever asked me that before. It means I have to keep trying, and try harder, and keep building and keep growing. I feel so blessed for the opportunities that I’ve been given. I want to change the world—like that’s what I want to do. And I think I’m crazy enough to think that I can. We’ve made a huge difference, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a long way to go, and a lot of lives to change.

Definitely, and I want to make a comment about something you just said, that you feel blessed to have been given these opportunities. It just struck me—we say we’ve been given opportunities, not that we earned them.

Yeah, that’s a good point. You know, my parents came here as refugees and I was just in India recently, and there is just so much poverty. I look at these young girls and just think, that could have been me. That’s what I mean when I say I feel like I’ve been given a chance, and one of the things I see so much in a lot of these women that aren’t given a chance…[is that] the strongest girls who come out of Girls Who Code are the ones who have it the hardest.