While the end of a semester is usually the time where students’ interest in a particular topic is winding down, a pair of Arkansas events this past month were focused on ramping up interest for young women in computer science fields.
The Information Technology Research Institute at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business hosted a Girls in IT event in Little Rock on Dec. 4 to introduce information technology careers to high school girls. Sponsored by Acxiom and Dillard’s, the event was held at Acxiom’s offices with more than 120 young women from 18 Arkansas high schools attending.
The following week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and first lady Susan Hutchinson, in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and Code.org, hosted 150 middle school and high school girls from 40 schools for the Girls of Promise Coding Summit on Dec. 9 at the Governor’s Mansion.
With a growing technology sector in Arkansas and a critical shortage of talent development in computer science, our state needs more young women to pursue careers in the field.
Nationally, unemployment in computer science-related fields stands at a remarkably low 3.4 percent, and the availability of jobs in this sector is expected to increase 20 percent by the year 2020.
While male interest in computer science has rapidly increased since 2004 and the advent of the mobile age, interest in the sector by women has actually decreased. The number of computing degrees or certificates to women has dropped by almost 30 percent, contributing to an even greater gender gap in an already male-dominated industry.
The U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that there will be 1.4 million job openings for computer-related occupations this decade, and the median job for people with a computer-science degree pays around $80,000 to $100,000. Of the STEM fields, computer science and computer engineering have the highest median earnings for recent college graduates without advanced degrees, and only around 12 percent are women.
Nationally, access to opportunities to explore computer science, coding, app development, and hardware engineering has been an obstacle in promoting the subject. This is a shame because the Girl Scouts Research Institute reported in 2012 that 23 percent of high school girls say they are interested in pursuing computer science. The lack of opportunities is clear and troubling because only 0.4 percent of female college freshmen list a STEM field as their intended major in college. Cultivation of interest in computer science throughout high school is an essential method of inspiring more young women to pursue further study in the field.
There are a number organizations in Arkansas that working to inspire interest in computer science for young women in middle and high school beyond the classroom.
100 Girls of Code, a national organization focused on achieving greater gender parity in STEM fields, now has a presence across many corners of Arkansas with a Central Arkansas chapter sponsored by the Innovation Hub, Northwest Arkansas chapter sponsored by Startup Junkie Consulting, Hot Springs chapter sponsored by Mid-America Science Museum and a Crittendon County chapter.
100 Girls of Code invests in young women by providing free workshops introducing them to the world of computer science and engineering, where they create with code and engage in hands-on, innovative thinking. Their workshops are led by programmers who are experts in their fields and academically trained but most importantly, they are “girls of code” themselves.
The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts offers g1rls_c0de to young women in eighth and ninth grades as part of its free Saturday enrichment programs. The goal of the program is to expand young women’s definition of computer science as well as demonstrate that women can do great things in the computer science field.
The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas’ Girls of Promise, University of Central Arkansas’ Girl Power in STEM and Arkansas STEM Coalition Girls Leadership Conferences are events that connect young women with intellectual peers and adult mentors who recognize the excitement and value of exploring math and science fields.
The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas used their event at the Governor’s Mansion to also announce an exciting challenge to keep the participants engaged in computer science while putting their growing abilities toward meaningful causes.
The Girls of Promise Tech Contest, sponsored by AT&T, is designed to help girls hone tech, research and communication skills while doing something good for the world. Girls are asked to develop an app, website, computer program, 3-D print template or other project with a specific philanthropic intention. Each submission must provide a service on behalf of or directly benefit a nonprofit, church, school or government agency. Entries are due by February 15, 2016.
Three times more female high school students in Arkansas are taking a computer science course this year than the last. That’s a great start, but the long-term success of the state in creating a more diverse talent base hinges on creating a pipeline of enthusiastic young coders. If the Walton College and Women’s Foundation of Arkansas’ events are successful, then, ironically, there will come a day in the future where such experiences are unnecessary. One day, there will not be a need for special events organized to spotlight female programmers while recruiting new ones. Because if our efforts prove successful today, a diverse workforce of computer programmers will be merely commonplace in the future.