In a powerful opening keynote at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, Reshma Saujani, founder of the national nonprofit Girls Who Code, told librarians that getting young girls interested in technology is the key to a better future—and she urged them to help her change a culture that is pushing girls away from coding, and computers.
“I believe that if you teach girls to code, they can march off into the middle class,” Saujani said. Unfortunately, she explained, over the last two decades, the number of women in tech—one of the nation’s most vital economic sectors—is dropping.
“Today, less than 18% of computer science graduates are women, and the number of women in our technology workforce is actually declining," Saujani observed. "That's crazy. At a time when we are relying on American women to take care of their families, to pay the mortgage, to put food on the table, to make sure their children get a great education, we are missing out on women.”
Sauajani noted that there are currently more than 500,000 open computer science jobs the U.S., but that U.S. schools graduate only about 40,000 computer science majors a year, compared to China which graduated 350,000 last year alone. And for women, the problem is even more significant. Last year, just 7,000 U.S. women graduated with a major in computer science, she said, despite women making up more 50% of the labor force, more than 50% of college graduates, and more than 40% of breadwinners in America.
It wasn't always this way. “In the 1980s, 37% of computer science graduates were women,” Saujani told librarians. “In fact, if you walked into any of America's gaming camps in the 1980s, it was half girls, and half boys.” So what happened?
A big part of the problem, she explained, is the culture. Saujani pointed to the birth of the “brogrammer” in the 1980s, through films like Weird Science, and Revenge of the Nerds. “Little girls looked at that image and said, not only do I not want to be him I don't want to be friends with him,” she said, to laughter. “And at some point, it became fashionable for girls to say ‘I hate math, I hate science.’ You can walk into Forever 21 here on Lakeshore drive right now and buy a t-shirt that says ‘I'm allergic to algebra’.”
But, just as it has with representations of other professions, that can change in computer science, too. Saujani pointed out that in the late 1970s, less than 10% of doctors and lawyers were women. But as more female doctors and lawyers appeared on TV and in the culture, that changed. “You cannot be, what you cannot see,” she said.
More broadly, Saujani pointed to how girls are raised—the subject of her popular TED Talk. “I think that we raise our girls to be perfect and we were raise our boys to be brave,” she said. “From a very young age, we teach our girls to smile pretty play it safe, get all A’s, don't get your dress dirty. And we teach our boys to jump off the top of the monkey bars."
Saujani told librarians how her own personal journey inspired her to teach girls to code. Her parents were refugees, kicked out of Uganda during Idi Amin’s purge in the early 70s. Because they were engineers—badly needed in America—they were granted residence, outside of Chicago. “Every day, no matter how tired my father was, he’d put me in the car and drive me to Schaumburg Public Library, and he'd read to me from books about Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevet,” she recalled. “And I decided then that I wanted to give back to this nation that saved my parents lives.”
She went on to law school, and a job at a powerhouse New York firm—which she hated. “It was 2008, and I was watching my mentor Hillary Clinton give her first concession speech, and she had this line, that just because I failed doesn’t mean you shouldn't try. I literally felt like she was speaking to me. So, I walked in my boss’s office, quit and my job and at 33 I ran for United States Congress—in a New York City Democratic primary against an 18-year incumbent."
She was badly defeated. But that run actually led to the formation of Girls Who Code. “When you run for office, you visit a lot of schools, and I remember going to a lot of computer science classes and seeing hundreds of boys clamoring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerbeg, and I thought, where are the girls?” she said. “Where were we in this industry that was shaping our collective future?”
In 2012, she started Girls Who Code with 20 girls in a New York classroom. It has now reached over 40,000 girls across the country. This summer, Girls Who Code will run 80 classrooms in 11 cities as well as after school classes in all 50 states. In all the program will reach 1600 girls this summer, half of which are under the poverty line. And some 15% of those clubs are in libraries.
“It's working,” Saujani reported, telling librarians that 93% of the girls in the summer immersion program go on to major or minor in computer science or a closely-related field, and on average those girls go on to teach other girls about coding. And this Summer, she will publish a nonfiction book for young readers, Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World, as well as a series of fiction books for young girls with Penguin Random House.
She told librarians she is writing the fiction books because it is important for her to create stories that girls could embrace. “I don't have to tell this audience that literary representation matters,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that the girl saw themselves in these characters.”
She closed with a plea to librarians—please help. “At a time with a feels like our schools and libraries are under attack, we need to make sure that we stand up and fight. I want you to help start a club every single one of your libraries,” she said. “I'm only standing here because a librarian saw something in me, and I'm asking you—I’m enlisting you to help solve this problem. To make sure that every girl just like me has a chance at the American dream, has a shot at one of those 21st Century jobs, has a chance to build the next amazing company, or cure cancer. We can do this together.”