Fewer than one percent of high school girls express interest in becoming computer science majors in college—a dismal number that also points to why the percentage of women among computer science graduates has dropped in recent decades. Google aims to boost that number via a mentorship network aimed at getting girls interested in coding. The company plans to invest $50 million into its new "Made with Code" initiative over the next three years.
The Internet giant recently revealed that women make up just 17 percent of its tech workforce, compared with 48 percent of its non-tech workforce. The Google diversity report roughly coincided with the launch of the company's "Made with Code" website that includes links to videos about inspirational female mentors and introductory coding projects which don't require any programming knowledge.
A new generation of women armed with coding skills could have a better shot at joining the tech workforce of Silicon Valley or founding their own tech-inspired startups. "Nowadays, coding isn't just a skill useful for working at a tech company; engineering isn’t just for engineers," said Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, in a Google blog post. "Interior design. Medicine. Architecture. Music. No matter what a girl dreams of doing, learning how to code will help her get there."
The "Made with Code" projects allow website visitors to try their hand at stylizing selfies, making GIF animations and even coding a bracelet design for 3-D printers—all without knowing how to write a single line of code. Instead, such projects use Google's Blockly, a visual programming editor that only requires users to fit together blocks of code like a simple jigsaw puzzle. (Other projects available under a "Resources" section use Scratch, an MIT programming editor similar to Blockly, or provide introductions for using HTML and CSS.)
The "Mentors" section showcases videos about women putting their coding skills to use in the real world. For instance, Danielle Feinberg works as a lighting cinematographer at Disney's Pixar animation studio. Miral Kotb, a dancer and software engineer, created an iLuminate system that can wirelessly control light patterns on dancers' bodies—a technology used by music celebrities such as Chris Brown, The Black Eyed Peas and Death Cab for Cutie.
Other elements of Google's $50-million plan include committing funding to support programs that help more females enter computer science, such as rewarding teachers who support girls in taking online computer science courses through Codeacademy or Khan Academy. The company also hopes to spread Made with Code through organizations such as Girl Scouts of the USA and Girls Inc..
But the hill Google hopes to climb is a steep one. The percentage of women among all computer science graduates has dropped from 37 percent in 1984 to just 12 percent today, according to the organization Girls Who Code. As IEEE Spectrum's Tekla Perry points out, that drop has taken place despite a flurry of recent efforts aimed at highlighting gender imbalances in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers, as well as new programs and even engineering toys aimed at girls.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.