A large fraction of the world consumes technology in one form or another. Unfortunately, the number of people that develop and work to advance technology pales in comparison. The estimated number of professional developers around the world is only 11 million people. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, employment in all computer related occupations is expected to increase by over 20%. But the workforce will not keep pace.
This is a critical time. We need children and adults to transition from being technology consumers to becoming technology producers and innovators. Just as we worried about reading literacy in the 80s, we need to worry about computer literacy now. Otherwise, we will create a large divide between those who understand how technology works and those who can merely use it. Coding is the key to obtaining computer literacy. Coding teaches you how to solve problems. Coding teaches you how to organize your thoughts in new ways. Coding stretches your mind.
Even though there are so many benefits to coding, a small number of girls and women are involved in coding. Only 18% of undergraduate degrees in computer science are awarded to women (see https://www.ncwit.org/). Computer science is the only field in science, engineering and math in which the number of women receiving a college degree has deceased since 2002. While there has been a recent increase in college degrees in computer science the last few years, the number of men getting a college degree in computer science is rising faster. If you look at the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple, over 70% of the workforce is male. In some cases, the female technical workforce is only 10% (Fortune Magazine, 2015).
This was not always the case. There was a time when the number of women in technology was 20 to 30 percent higher than today. But over the last few decades, our culture has encouraged young women to play with dolls instead of robots. Personal computer applications were designed for boys not girls. And the stereo-typical computer scientists was an awkward geek who smelled funny, wore large rim glasses, had acne, and cared about playing and programming video games that blew things up.
Well, I am a bit of a geek, I don’t think I smell funny, and I am a pacifist that works on data privacy and data mining for the social good. I am in computer science to find ways to create technology to help solve some of our largest societal problems, including forced migration. Computer science is bigger and broader than its stereotype. Ladies, this is a call to all of you.
It is time to change the image of a computer scientist.
It is time for girls and women to be a significant part of this technology revolution.
Lisa Singh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgetown University.