Originally published in the New York Post.
Get with the program, girls!
While computer programming is shaping our world’s future, it remains a male-dominated field. In fact, although the number of women attending college is increasing nationally , the percentage of women who graduate with a degree in technology-related disciplines is less than just 1 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Rina Schiller, a junior at the Macaulay Honors College within the City University of New York (CUNY) system, thinks this inequality is a detriment to all.
“If we want to advance humanity in general, as well as feminism and gender equality, women have to be…important in all professional areas,” says Schiller. “It’s important for us to step up and say, ‘I’m going to be a part of shaping our future.’”
This past January, Schiller, a digital media major and dual computer science and gender studies minor, took part in a pilot computer science course called Computing Concepts and held at Macaulay through the Women In Technology and Entrepreneurship in NY (WiTNY) initiative.
Created as a partnership between CUNY, Cornell Tech and Verizon, the initiative targets women in the undergraduate and graduate school pipeline, and aims to increase the numbers of women working in technology.
Due to early cultural biases against girls pursuing science and math, there are misperceptions about what careers in these fields are really like, says Judith Spitz, Verizon’s executive in residence at Cornell Tech.
“Computer science is perceived as a loner sport for math geniuses, which couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Spitz. “We hope to cast a wider net — to help more young women understand that computer literacy is a powerful tool you can use to solve a problem you are passionate about. I’ve done the math. If you can move the 0.9 percent of women who major in computer science closer to 5 percent nationally, it would double the number of computer science-educated students entering the workforce.”
While co-ed, the three-week, experimental WiTNY course drew more young women than men (a 60/40 split) and was designed as a tool for problem solving and teambuilding, says Ann Kirschner, special advisor to the chancellor for strategic partnerships at CUNY.
Students were taught how to write code in Python, grab open source libraries (used in app development) and create functional prototypes.
For Schiller, the WiTNY course was more welcoming than other computer science classes she’d taken.
“We had an incredible professor who was so personable, and open to questions and conversation. It was a supportive environment. Computer science can be daunting, but in this class I felt that it’s okay not to know everything. There’s always more to learn and more that you can do with coding and programming. Two partners and I built a video game, and I gained a lot more confidence overall. I am less hesitant now about pursuing it as my minor,” says Schiller.
Less than 1 percent of women who graduate have a technology-related degree.
Longer term, CUNY plans to roll out the WiTNY course to students at its Queens, LaGuardia, Staten Island and City Tech campuses.
With more female computer science grads, “There’s a great opportunity for New York City to establish itself as the home of great women in technology,” says Kirschner. “The role of tech is wide here in our diverse economy. It’s so much more than software engineering. It’s finance, media, healthcare. All areas that can benefit from the inclusion of a growing, talented and diverse workforce.”
In addition to the class, scholarships are being offered to women who will declare computer science or a related discipline, says Spitz. “The scholarships have a dollar value of $3,000 a year, for up to three years, to incentivize [women] to enter and remain in those majors.”
Supporting charter-funding companies include Accenture, as well as the Citi Foundation, IBM, Xerox, JPMorgan Chase, AppNexus and Grand Central Tech.
“We’re starting with 50 students in the first cohort, and the plan is to add 75 additional students each year for the next three years at CUNY,” says Spitz. “At Cornell Tech, we’re offering three fellowships and the dollar values are different, but not exceeding fifty percent of the tuition.”
Internships are another component of WiTNY’s plan.
“All of the sponsoring companies have agreed to host up to five women from CUNY in their summer internship programs,” says Spitz. “[The interns] will work in IT departments, data analytics, digital media, and more. Plus, one evening each week, interns will get together with a person of interest at their employer to begin to develop a network of other young women and to hear about their internships.”
“The multimillion dollar commitment (over $5 million) is a significant investment and we expect it to have far-reaching consequences,” says Spitz. “These women will hold the door open for the next generation. We expect exponential growth, as it will no longer be an oddity to major in computer science and move on to technology jobs. We are changing the attitudes that have kept women out.”
“I heard about it through our computer science department. There’s no excuse not to attend. I’m excited about it,” says Schiller.