Girls Decode Lonely Status in Computer Science Classes

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Credit: Stephanie Wang

Natalya Sachivichik, a senior development engineer at Range Resources, presents at a Girls in STEM conference organized by teen Stephanie Wang.

McMURRAY, Penn. (WOMENSENEWS)–When Cambrea Earley walked into her computer science C++ class on the first day of school this year, she wasn’t surprised to find herself the only girl in a sea of boys.

The same thing happened last year in her Visual Basic class. The year before, her freshman year, things were a little more promising: two of her female peers joined her for JAVA programming at Peters Township High School in Western Pennsylvania, which has a student population of about 1,500.

Despite an even gender split in the student body overall, out of the 98 students enrolled in the high school’s computer science courses, only 14 are female.

This imbalance mirrors the situation nationwide. Last year, only 20 percent of U.S. high school students who took the AP Computer Science test were female, according to Education Week.

Lauren Stawartz, a technology and business teacher at Earley’s school, said she was blown away when she received the class rosters for her gaming and programming classes this year.

"Out of the two classes, there are only two girls out of 47 students," she said. "I think from a young age, [boys] are more involved in gaming and programming than girls. But once the girls are in the class, they are just as into it as the boys. We just need to get them into the class in the first place."

Computer science is expected to generate the most job growth of any employment field between 2012 to 2020, with an estimated 1.4 million jobs available by 2020, according to the Department of Labor.

But if more girls don’t start taking high school computer science classes there is little chance of women enjoying an equitable stake in this expansion.

"Girls are missing out on a lot of great opportunities. It’s a shame. As an IT (information technology) teacher, I can watch how fast technology is expanding. Girls are being left behind," said Stawartz.

Previously More Girls

Frank Guerra, Earley’s C++ teacher, said more girls used to take his class 20 years ago. "When I first started teaching [in the early to mid-90s], there were actually far more girls than boys. I would say the ratio was 75 percent girls to 25 percent boys," said Guerra. "Due to personal computers, the Internet and video games of the aggressive nature, I think more boys became excited about computer science, and the girls became less excited about it. Boys became more aggressive, louder and their friends were joining them [in class], which I think intimidated the girls."

Some critics have observed that boys aren’t necessarily naturally attracted to computers. Instead, they point to the huge role that marketing and advertising aimed at boys–not girls–has played in discouraging girls.

Junior Stephanie Wang joined the school’s robotics team in her freshman year and began to program for the team the following year.

"I almost felt isolated from the boys," she said. It didn’t help that the majority of her peers on the club were upperclassmen, as well as male.

Earley had similar experiences. "I didn’t go into this class knowing anyone so it was a bit intimidating," she said. "It feels like I’m in elementary school or something because it’s like, ‘OMG a girl is in our fort.’"

While Earley couldn’t think of outward discrimination, she mainly just felt ignored. "It’s like hanging out with your brother’s friends," she said with a shrug. "Except your brother isn’t there."

Despite having a teacher who "treats me like everyone else," Earley said the class is intimidating to girls.

"It isn’t always the welcoming environment that would help more timid and unsure girls try it out. A lot of girls are probably passing up something they could potentially like because of a stupid reason like ‘there are only boys in that class’ or ‘there are only upperclassmen in that class,’" Earley said.

Changing Perceptions

Earley’s teacher, Stawartz, hopes that the computer club at Peters Township High School, which she sponsors, will crack this perception.

"Although we definitely have more boys in the club than girls, there’s not as much of a gap compared to the gaming class. The girls in the club are able to talk to boys who have taken the gaming class before and hear about it. I also talk to them to see if I can hopefully convince them to take the class next year," she said.

As a way to get more girls interested in STEM classes overall, the school district held an event, Girls Rock Science, in Pittsburgh this past fall. Computer science and STEM teachers, as well as a handful of female students, engaged girls in STEM-based hands-on activities to get them excited about science. Girls designed blueprints for Lego creations and interacted with women who have been successful in STEM careers.

Last summer, Wang addressed the gender disparity issue by spearheading a conference about girls in STEM that was held in a neighboring district’s school. It was open to girls of all ages and featured female speakers who shared their success in fields mainly dominated by men. Speakers also offered tips about negotiating fair contracts in order to encourage girls to fracture the wage gap.

"I wanted to show [girls] that women have had success in the past in STEM fields, and they can too," said Wang. "I’m not going to delude myself into thinking all girls who attended are going to become scientists. But after the event, girls came up to me and told me how they never thought STEM fields could be so inclusive or so fun. And that was a great feeling."

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