The United States has a computing-skills crisis that is holding back American companies and economic growth. The solution lies with girls and young women.
Employers simply cannot fill positions that are becoming increasingly critical to their businesses. Recent data show that there are 500,000 open computing jobs in the United States and fewer than 40,000 new computer science graduates to fill them - only 7,000 of whom are women.
We cannot address this skills crisis by ignoring half of our talent pool. Yet, despite unprecedented efforts to expand computer science education for children and young adults, women’s share of the computing workforce continues to fall - from 37 percent in 1995 to 24 percent today. New research from Accenture and Girls Who Code shows that women’s share will fall to 22 percent by 2025 if we don’t change the way we teach computer science to girls.
It’s not that girls and young women are not being taught computer science; they are and have been for years. It’s how they are taught that is not working. Boys and girls learn and are motivated in different ways. For example, for boys, it doesn’t matter whether their teacher is a man or a woman, but our research shows that girls are 26 percent more likely to study computer science if they have a female teacher.
This is compounded by strong gender imbalances we see every day - from the classroom to the boardroom to the movie screen - where men are primarily seen and depicted as our society’s computer scientists.
Cracking the gender code requires tailoring computer science education to girls.
This starts in junior high, where we need to spark girls’ interest - and show them that computing can be fun and is not just for boys. We also need to do more to inform parents and teachers how they can truly engage girls. Our research reveals that girls who are exposed to computer games at an early age are four times more likely to go into computer science.
The high school years are even more challenging in terms of sustaining girls’ interest. Large numbers of girls who were engaged in computing in junior highlose interest in high school and never return. For example, not having friends in a high school computing class can reduce by 33 percent the likelihood of a girl studying the subject in college.
For high school girls, you cannot be what you cannot see, so we need to train more female computer science teachers, who can help draw more girls into computing - and retain them. It is also vital for teachers to show girls that computer science is relevant across all aspects of life - from health care to clean energy - and that they as individuals can make a real impact on the world through computing careers.
Finally, in college, the role of a mentor is paramount as young women transition between computing as a discipline and computing as a career. To improve outcomes, colleges should partner with businesses to encourage more on-campus speaking and mentorship programs featuring women. Once again, more female teachers will help. The good news is that tailored initiatives at colleges such as Harvey Mudd College and the University of California at Berkeley - with a strong female presence in computer science departments - show that efforts to make computer science courses appeal to women have significantly increased female participation.
Why focus on computing, when women’s share of other engineering and science fields is also low? Other science and math fields have already experienced gains in the share of female graduates in recent years. Computing is the only field that continues to decline. It also happens to be one area where we know the jobs are.
Getting all this right has vast implications for the U.S. economy. We estimate that a more targeted focus on girls could triple the number of women working in computing, from 1.2 million today to 3.9 million by 2025, moving their share of jobs from 24 to 39 percent.
U.S. business can’t meet the demands of our digital economy if we do not unlock our pool of female talent. The need for computing talent will only increase as more industries become technology-driven. If nothing is done to change the downward trend, we will not meet business’s urgent demands for talent, and young women will miss out on these high-value jobs.
Saujani is founder and chief executive of Girls Who Code. Sweet is the North America group chief executive for Accenture.