If the tech sector is to increase the number of women in its workforce, schools must develop robust, mandatory computer science programs in the K-12 education stage, according to a prominent advocate for women in tech.
"You make it an option, the girl is not going to take it. You have to make it mandatory and start it at a young age," says Ashley Gavin, curriculum director at Girls Who Code, a nonprofit working to expose more girls to computer science at a young age that has drawn support from leading tech firms such as Google, Microsoft and Intel.
"It's important to start early because, most of the fields that people go into, they have exposure before they get to college. We all study English before we get to college, we all study history and ... social studies before we get to college," Gavin says. "No one has any idea what computer science is. By the time you get to college, you develop fear of things you don't know. Therefore early exposure is really important."
Gavin, speaking at an event focused on increasing the number of women pursuing education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, claims that, of the job openings in those STEM fields, some 70 percent will be pegged to computer science by 2020.
Few Women in Tech, More Jobs Left Unfilled
Advocates of expanding STEM education often talk about the "leaky pipeline" — the fact that many students who initially start toward a degree in one of those fields change course and pursue a different discipline.
Girls Who Code estimates that 30 percent of students with early exposure to computer science stay in the field. At that drop-off rate, for women to fill half of the computer specialist job openings the Department of Labor is projecting in 2020, 4.6 million girls will need some K-12 computer science instruction. Gavin's nonprofit alone aims to reach 1 million girls by 2020.
Other industry data paints a starker picture. Women comprise 48 percent of the total workforce but hold just 23 percent of the STEM jobs, according to the National Math and Science Initiative. In 1991, women received 29.6 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science; in 2010, women took just 18.2 percent of those degrees.
That apparent decline in women's interest in computer science is a subset of the broader concern over a shortage of STEM workers. Studies argue that the perceived shortage of STEM workers is overstated, and that the labor supply has actually been increasing faster than demand — but Gavin, along with many tech companies, counters that the problem is very real indeed.
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